April 14, 2010

More Than One Way to Run a Solar System

by Heather Falconer

For years, science class has taught us that planets are formed when a vast cloud of cold gas and dust surrounding a newly formed star is compressed. Using the mass’s original momentum and gravitational force, these planets orbit the star in the same direction as the star’s spin. Seems simple enough. And there hasn’t been any evidence that would suggest otherwise. (The first multi-planet system other than our own wasn’t discovered  until 1999, and that one behaves much like our own.)

There hasn’t been any reason to question this — until now. Researchers in Europe announced yesterday that they have observed extrasolar exoplanets revolving around their stars in the opposite direction to the stars’ spin. Some of these planets, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, have highly tilted, eccentric orbits that would destroy any smaller, rocky planets that could harbor life.

Astronomer Alan Boss at Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington explained how such “close encounters between planets orbiting the star would result in some planets getting sling-shotted into highly eccentric orbits, in some cases even backward (or retrograde) ones.” The cause of the change in orbit direction could be due to a variety of causes, including pull from distant massive planets.

The discovery, announced at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Glasgow, Scotland, suggests that our solar system is unique not only in the presence of Earth, but possibly in the stability of planetary orbits.

Image copyright of the Royal Astronomical Society
Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.