Planet's Wild Ride Caught By Kepler Space telescope
February 5, 2014

Kepler Scientists Discover Extremely Wobbly New Planet

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has located a new planet that wobbles wildly on its axis much like a spinning toy top, with its tilt varying by as much as 30 degrees over an 11 year span, the US space agency announced Tuesday.

The planet, which has been named Kepler-413b, follows an unusual 66-day orbit around a binary system comprised of an orange and red dwarf star. The planet, which is located 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, also appears to be frequently moving up and down due to an orbit that is tilted 2.5 degrees compared to its stars.

However, astronomers are particularly interested in how this far-off world wobbles or “precesses” on a human timescale. In comparison to Kepler-413b’s spin axis variation, Earth’s rotational precession is just 23.5 degrees over a span of 26,000 years, NASA officials explained. The Kepler team discovered the wobbling shortly after finding an unusual pattern of transiting for the newly-discovered world, they added.

“Looking at the Kepler data over the course of 1,500 days, we saw three transits in the first 180 days – one transit every 66 days – then we had 800 days with no transits at all,” said principal investigator Veselin Kostov of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSci) and Johns Hopkins University.

“After that, we saw five more transits in a row,” he added. The next transit to be visible from Earth’s point of view is not expected to take place until 2020, because the up-and-down movement of the orbit and the planet’s wobbling means that there are times that it does not transit the stars as viewed from our planet.

Currently, NASA scientists are not sure why Kepler-413b is out of alignment with its stars. The orbit might have been tilted by other, yet undiscovered planetary bodies in the binary system, or there could be a third star located nearby that could be gravitationally bound to the system and thus exerting an influence on the planet.

“Presumably there are planets out there like this one that we're not seeing because we're in the unfavorable period,” said Peter McCullough, a team member with STSci and Johns Hopkins. “And that's one of the things that Veselin is researching: Is there a silent majority of things that we're not seeing?”

Kepler-413b’s precession causes tremendous variation in the planet’s climate, but even so, NASA officials said that it is too hot to support life as we know it. Since it orbits in such close proximity to its stars, they explained, “its temperatures are too high for liquid water to exist, making it inhabitable. It also is a super Neptune – a giant gas planet with a mass about 65 times that of Earth – so there is no surface on which to stand.”