I hadn’t planned to write about the recent work out of the University of Exeter on Beta Pictoris, but yesterday’s article on KELT-9b dealt with planetary alignment, given that the planet shows marked spin-orbit misalignment. At Beta Pictoris, an international team of researchers led by Exeter’s Stefan Kraus has carried out measurements of the spin-orbit alignment of Beta Pictoris b, a gas giant orbiting a young star in an orbit about as distant as Saturn from the Sun. Here we have the first spin-orbit alignment measurement of a directly imaged planetary system.
How such alignments occur is clearly relevant to planet formation theories. There’s a bit of astronomy history here, for spin-orbit issues became significant for both Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), who looked at spin-orbit alignment in our own Solar System. It was apparent to both that the planets known to them orbited the Sun not only in alignment with each other but in alignment with the Sun’s axis as well. Hence the idea that the entire system formed from a rotating planetary disc, and a flattened one at that.
Other planetary systems may follow different paths of development, as Kraus notes:
“It was a major ...