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Astrobiology Magazine

Surprising link: Tilting of exoplanets and their orbits

5 Mar 2019, 08:31 UTC
Surprising link: Tilting of exoplanets and their orbits
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For almost a decade, astronomers have tried to explain why so many pairs of planets outside our solar system have an odd configuration—their orbits seem to have been pushed apart by a powerful unknown mechanism. Yale researchers say they’ve found a possible answer, and it implies that the planets’ poles are majorly tilted. The finding could have a big impact on how researchers estimate the structure, climate, and habitability of exoplanets as they try to identify planets that are similar to Earth. The research appears in the March 4 online edition of the journal Nature Astronomy. NASA’s Kepler mission revealed that about 30% of stars similar to our Sun harbor “Super-Earths.” Their sizes are somewhere between that of Earth and Neptune; they have nearly circular and coplanar orbits; and it takes them fewer than 100 days to go around their star. Yet curiously, a great number of these planets exist in pairs with orbits that lie just outside natural points of stability. That’s where obliquity—the amount of tilting between a planet’s axis and its orbit—comes in, according to Yale astronomers Sarah Millholland and Gregory Laughlin. “When planets such as these have large axial tilts, as opposed to little or no ...

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