General, Research, Technology

Kepler discovered a spinning top

Imagine life on a planet with suchunimaginable seasons that you will never know for sure what to wear - shorts or a fur coat. This is the situation on a strange and unstable planet discovered by the Kepler space telescope.


A planet called Kepler-413b spins franticallyaround its axis, like a baby top. The inclination of the axis of rotation of the planet can constantly change by 30 degrees over 11 years, which leads to a quick and random change of seasons. In contrast, the Earth’s rotational precession is 23.5 degrees in 26,000 years. Researchers are surprised that a distant planet is precessing throughout human life.

Kepler-413b is 2,300 light years fromEarth in the constellation Cygnus. She flies around a tight pair of orange and red dwarfs every 66 days. The planet’s orbit relative to binary stars is swinging because the plane of its orbit is tilted by 2.5 degrees relative to the orbit of a pair of stars. The orbit moves up and down continuously.

Kepler finds a planet, noting the dimming of a staror stars when a planet passes in front of them. Usually planets go like clockwork. Astronomers working with Kepler discovered the spinning top when they noticed the unusual nature of the Kepler-413b transit.

"Watching Kepler data for one and a halfthousand days, we saw three transit in the first 180 days - once every 66 days - and after 800 days without transit. After that, we saw five more transits in a row, ”said Veselin Kostov, chief researcher. The next transit seen from Earth is not expected until 2020. This is because the orbit moves up and down as a result of rotation at such an insane degree that sometimes it does not pass through a star when viewed from Earth.

Astronomers are still trying to explain whythis planet is not behaving calmly. Perhaps the inclined orbit is affected by other bodies in the system. Or perhaps there is a third star nearby that affects the planet.

“It is assumed that there are other suchplanets in space that we don’t see because the time is not right, ”says Peter McCullough, a member of the research team. “That's what Veselin is exploring: is it really that things that we don’t see prevail in space?”

Even with its seasons Kepler-413btoo warm for life as we know it. Since the planet’s orbit is too close to the stars, its temperature is too high for liquid water to exist on the surface. It also represents a super-Neptune - a gas giant with a mass of 65 terrestrial - so there simply is no surface there.