A team of scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope have observed an oddball exoplanet, known as HD 80606b, with a wildly eccentric orbit situated 190 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet – a planet outside our solar system – is what’s called a “hot Jupiter,” a gas giant like Jupiter but much hotter. The orbit of HD 80606b is almost like that of a comet, the researchers say, swinging sizzlingly close to its star and then back out to much greater distances over and over again every 111 days. A paper on the observations was published March 27, 2016 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
For centuries, our solar system was viewed as a standard blueprint for planetary systems in the universe, with a star (our sun) at the center of a circular track, and a planet orbiting within each lane. Smaller, rockier planets fill the interior lanes, and larger gas giants orbit further out.
But over the last 20 years, more powerful telescopes have revealed, far from our solar system, a host of exotic systems with completely unexpected configurations. Hot Jupiters, for example, are massive “roaster” planets that circle scorchingly close to their stars. Scientists have puzzled over how these gas giants, which supposedly form far from their stars, end up on such blistering orbits.
Now an even weirder planetary system may render the puzzle more challenging. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, a team of scientists have observed an exoplanet by the name of HD 80606b. This planet is about the size of Jupiter, though four times as massive, and resides in a system 190 light years from Earth, in the constellation Ursa Major.
What makes HD 80606b stand out amid the hundreds of exoplanets discovered recently is its highly eccentric orbit. Instead of maintaining a circular path, HD 80606b spends about 100 days of its year traveling an oblong route away from and then returning toward its star, much like the trajectory of a comet. Then, in a matter of just 20 hours, it sweeps around the star, very nearly touching it, before swinging away again. At its closest approach, the planet receives an enormous amount of energy from its star — over a thousand times the energy the Earth receives from the sun each day.
Greg Laughlin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, is co-author of the study. Laughlin said:
As the planet gets closer to the star, it feels a burst of starlight, or radiation. The atmosphere becomes a cauldron of chemical reactions, and the winds ramp up far beyond hurricane force.
The researchers observed HD 80606b over 85 hours, during its closest approach to its star. The researchers have studied how the planet’s temperature changes as it approaches, sweeps by, and moves away from its star. They determined that while the star-facing side of the planet boils up to an extreme 1,400 kelvins (roughly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) during the swing-by, these roasting temperatures are short-lived. Surprisingly, they found that the planet cools in fewer than 10 hours as it orbits away, reaching temperatures so cold that it becomes invisible to Spitzer for the rest of its orbit.
Study co-author Julien de Wit is a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. He said:
If the Earth were to be moved that close to our sun, it would lose its atmosphere and turn its surface to magma.
This happens every 111 days. The good thing is, the planet goes so far away that the process is a complete reset. It’s the same story over and over again.
It’s thought that hot Jupiters start out in circular orbits similar to that of our own Jupiter, far away from their stars. At some point, something large and massive like a nearby star pushes them into eccentric orbits. These planets are then squeezed by their stars’ gravity every time they whip close by. During every close encounter, a fraction of the gravitational energy used to squeeze the planets is dissipated as heat, slowly reducing the eccentricity of the planets’ orbits, which eventually end up tight and circular — a process known as circularization. HD 80606 b, therefore, is thought to be mid-migration, slowing moving from an elliptical to a circular track.
How long the circularization phase lasts depends on how “squishy” or pliable the planet is, given its interior properties. The more pliable a planet, the better it is at dissipating mechanical energy as heat — a trick anyone can experience by repeatedly squeezing a rubber ball, which in turn heats up the ball. Based on the squishiness of the giants in our solar system, the circularization phase is expected to occur over a relatively short period of hundreds of millions of years. Scientists believe this mechanism might explain how hot Jupiters eventually evolved their close-in orbits.
However, the new Spitzer observations suggest that HD 80606b is not as squishy as expected. Therefore, HD 80606b is not migrating as fast as previously thought and may maintain its highly eccentric orbit for another 10 billion years or more. If this is the case, de Wit says scientists may have to rethink theories on how hot Jupiters are formed, as it implies that the underlying migration mechanism may not be as efficient as once believed.
De Wit says that alternative theories for how hot Jupiters form — in which gas giants develop close to their stars or smoothly spiral inward with the help of planet-forming disks — may be more likely explanations for hot Jupiter evolution.
Bottom line: Observations of an extreme-weather exoplanet with a wildly eccentric orbit raise questions about the origins of mysterious exoplanets known as ‘hot Jupiters’. A paper on the observations was published on March 27, 2016 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.