Nearby planetary system is seriously screwed up

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2010 12:41 pm

Our solar system is pretty neat and orderly. Yeah, it has some issues, but in general we can make some broad statements about it: the planets all orbit the Sun in the same direction, for one thing, and they also orbit pretty much in the same plane. If you look at the system from the side, the orbits would all look flat, like a DVD seen from the side.

That’s left over from the formation of the solar system itself, which happened when a cloud of dust and gas collapsed into a disk. The planets formed from that disk, so they all orbit in roughly the same plane. We see other systems forming in the same way, so we assume that when we look at those planets, they’ll also have all their planets in a plane.

Oops. Maybe not so much. Astronomers have just announced that they’ve confirmed a system where the planets are not all aligned this way, and in fact the planets are titled relative to each other by as much as 30°!

hst_upsand

Ironically, the parent star is Upsilon Andromedae — that made me chuckle, because it was one of the very first stars found to have planets orbiting it, back in 1996. It’s actually a binary star, two stars orbiting each other; one is a star slightly more massive and hotter than the Sun, and the other a dinky red dwarf orbiting pretty far out (well outside the frame of that illustration of the system above). Three planets (called Upsilon Andromedae b, c, and d) at least are known to orbit the primary star. The planets were initially detected by their gravitational pull on the star; as they orbit they move the star in a mutual tug-of-war. We can’t (usually) see that motion directly, but it can be detected as a Doppler shift in the star’s light.

Due to the physics of the situation, that method only gives us a minimum mass for a planet. The actual mass might be much higher. It also doesn’t tell us the tilt of the orbit of the planet, or of any of the other planets in the system.

hst_upsand2What’s new here is that astronomers used telescopes on Hubble called the Fine Guidance Sensors, which are incredibly accurate and highly precise. The FGSs are so accurate that they could see the physical motion of the star on the sky, the wobbling as the planets tugged on it this way and that. Think of it like a harried parent at a mall with two little kids holding her hand. As the kids see one store or another they want to visit, they pull on her in different directions as she walks with them, so her path down the mall corridor shifts left and right.

Combining the new Hubble data with the older Doppler data has revealed a wealth of information about the planets in that system. For one thing, it nailed the masses. Instead of lower limits, we now have accurate masses for planets: Ups And c is 14 times the mass of Jupiter, and Ups And d is 10 times Jupiter’s mass*. Mind you, Jupiter is a bit of a bruiser, so these are hefty planets. These masses are far larger than thought before, so the new observations really changed our thinking here.

But the amazing thing is that it looks like Ups And c and d are in wildly different orbits: instead of being almost exactly in the same plane as expected, they are tilted relative to one another by 30°! The illustration on the right compared those orbits with those of planets in our own solar system, and you can see how weird this is.

But does this mean astronomers are wrong about how planets form?

Probably not. We’re pretty sure we understand how planets form, at least in general terms. What this does mean is that something happened to the planets after they formed, something that tossed one or both of these planets into different orbits than the ones they were born in.

This isn’t a huge surprise. Pluto may or may not be a planet by your definition, but it orbits the Sun at an angle of 17° with respect to the Earth. Sedna, an object about the same size as Pluto in the outer solar system, also has a large tilt. We know there is some mechanism that can change the orbits of big objects in the solar system, so why not in other systems, too?

In the case of Upsilon Andromedae, we have some culprits. The data hint that there may be a fourth planet orbiting the star. It’s not clear if it’s there or not, but if it has an elliptical orbit it could gravitationally affect the inner planets. There’s also the red dwarf star orbiting farther out. Far more massive than a planet, its gravity may have some effect on the system as well. It’s also certainly possible that there are other influences we haven’t seen or thought of yet. [Update: I just got off the phone with the team who did this research, and Rory Barnes told me that a strong possibility as well is that there were more planets in the system initially. They would have interacted via gravity, and affected each others’ orbits. A likely scenario is that a planet with about ten times the mass of Jupiter could have messed up the orbits of the other two, then been ejected out of the system. This is a common outcome when you have lots of massive objects in one system.]

The point here is that in general, our theories of how planets form is pretty good. As we study more of these systems, we’ll get more and more data under our belts that will help us catalog and understand where these systems follow our theories, and where they seem to diverge. That’s all good news! Theories only go so far in explaining everything, and as we observe more we modify those ideas, add to them, so they better represent the Universe around us. That’s how science works, and that’s how we learn.



* Unfortunately, Ups And b orbits too close to its parent star to get an accurate mass for it. That’ll have to wait for the future, with new techniques and better instruments.

Related posts:

Wrong way planets screw up our perfectly good theories
A tiny wobble reveals a massive planet


Image credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: Upsilon Andromedae

Comments (39)

  1. Sarah

    Maybe not completely unexpected … ( I am not an Astrophysicist ) but I note the system is a binary, with a red dwarf companion star of unknown orbit.

  2. “But does this mean astronomers are wrong about how planets form?”

    Of course not. Given enough systems you always find an anomaly.

  3. Why can’t there be more than one way to form planets. I mean it seems like a really big universe, lots of weird things could and do happen.

    I ask the question without any data or reason except that it was the first idea that popped in my head before the post influence issues were discussed.

    I suppose Occams Razor is the answer.

  4. Blaidd Drwg

    I wonder just what the chance is that the 2 stars formed independantly, and formed planets – then some time later, they met, fell in love, and are still doing their romantic dance, with their respective planets circling like the children of blended families – all part of the same family, just going somewhat different ways…

    Also, I must need new glasses, when I read the bit about Sedna, I read it as having a large KILT, now I suddenly have an urge to watch the new Doctor Who – mostly for Amy…

  5. DownHouse

    This is amazingly cool.

    “a planet with about ten times the mass of Jupiter could have messed up the orbits of the other two, then been ejected out of the system.”

    What might happen to a planet that size after it’s been ejected? Would it just fly on its way forever? I’d imagine it’s own gravity might be enough to hold it together, but how would it be affected by a lack of a home star?

  6. Matlatzinca

    I just think it is cool that they’ve found Pern. Maybe with better resolution we can see some fire-lizards?

  7. Simon

    The simplest explanation would be Kozai torques from the companion star causing the outer planet to oscillate in eccentricity and inclination. See Wu and Murray (2003, ApJ) for a simulation of a similar circumstance at HD80606.

  8. andy

    Note that at 14 Jupiter masses, the middle planet would have been able to support deuterium fusion in its interior for a few million years after its formation. On the other hand it is part of a non-hierarchical “planetary” system, with less massive objects (with masses below the deuterium fusion limit) in inner and outer orbits. This system clearly indicates that the ability for an object to undergo deuterium fusion at some stage in its history is not a good way to distinguish planets and brown dwarfs, unless you are willing to entertain some very contrived descriptions of certain systems.

    Another thing it brings home is that it shows you cannot rely on radial velocity minimum masses to give reliable descriptions of multi-planet systems: before this result, it was thought that the middle planet was less massive than the outer one. In fact, its orbit is closer to face-on than the outer one, thus masking its mass. Once you allow the possibility of misaligned systems, you cannot rely on radial velocities to identify the mass hierarchy in an extrasolar planetary system.

    For comparison, two extrasolar planetary systems are known to be coplanar: the two super-Earths orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 and the resonant gas giants at Gliese 876, which IIRC are the only other multiplanet extrasolar systems for which such measurements have been made. In all these cases there is an inner planet for which the inclination cannot be constrained.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Another win, likely, for the “biggest bullies in the school yard eject the smaller fry” dynamics. Our privileged observation point (and the desire to have a stable system) predisposes us to forget that most likeliest possibility.

    planets and brown dwarfs

    My reaction was “what about brown dwarfs … oooh!” Yes, I keep thinking that observing populations, not specific traits, is that clears biology up. And evidently astronomy too.

  10. Anonym

    In the oblique view of the Inner Solar System, NASA has Earth and Venus on the same orbital ring.

  11. John

    Did nobody else notice this from the full press release: “[the Fine Guidance Sensors] are so precise that they can measure the width of a quarter in Denver from the vantage point of Miami”

    Science rules!

  12. Chief

    Lets call the ejected planet Bronson Beta.

  13. Buzz Parsec

    Blaidd Drwg – The Brady Bunch system?

  14. Nonbeliever says:

    “Why can’t there be more than one way to form planets. I mean it seems like a really big universe, lots of weird things could and do happen. ”

    You mean you don’t picture god at a potter’s wheel, sculpting blobs of clay into planets, and then bowling them into their orbits around stars? Wow, maybe I’m the one who’s nuts??!

  15. Robert

    Whatever next??? “Astronomers have located a brown dwarf in our solar system circling the sun every 3600 years. They have decided to call it Nibiru(Planet X), and it is on a very elliptical orbit to the other planets that circle the sun”…it’s all coming together now.

  16. Left_Wing_Fox

    There’s a new chapter for the revised “Death From the Skies”; Someone throws a planet at us.

    I get this bizarre notion of watching a cold gas-ball the mass of 12 Jupiters flying trough our solar system, swallowing Venus without so much as a burp, and continuing on it’s merry way.

  17. Aaron

    FTA: “A likely scenario is that a planet with about ten times the mass of Jupiter could have messed up the orbits of the other two, then been ejected out of the system. This is a common outcome when you have lots of massive objects in one system.”

    Has this been confirmed? How do they determine what a “common outcome” would be? How many observations have been made to reach this conclusion? Or have they based this on computer modeling?

  18. Chris

    @5. DownHouse

    A planet on its own without a star will actually be slightly more stable than a planet orbiting a star. It’ll be colder for one thing, so there’ll be fewer volatiles (although the difference when you’re dealing with an orbit on the scale of Jupiter can’t be too significant). Also, it won’t be subjected to any solar wind. With no heat apart from that generated by radioactive decay, it’ll be pretty damn cold and (from the perspective of life) boring.

    I suppose it may eventually encounter another star system and be captured or just pass through and screw things up, but the odds of this are pretty damn slim.

    What might be interesting would be if something like the entire Jovian system was ejected: a massive gas giant with a large retinue of rocky moons. There’d be no fusion anywhere, but tidal forces on a close enough moon (something like Europa) could possibly create conditions viable for life.

  19. I have a question and it ties into the fact that perhaps a majority of extrasolar planets so far discovered have quite eccentric orbits: What if it’s all (or at least mostly) being caused by close passes between stars, which cause all sorts of chaos for the planets orbiting them? Not binary stars, but just two stars which, in the course of their orbits around the galaxy, happen to come within a few hundred AUs of each other?

    I’m sure someone much more knowledgable than I has already thought of this, but on average how often does a given star come within, say, 100 AU of another star?

  20. Peter B

    Non-Believer asked @ #3: “Why can’t there be more than one way to form planets. I mean it seems like a really big universe, lots of weird things could and do happen.”

    Good question. In this case, scientists have been trying out theories for forming planets for over a century. All sorts of ideas have been suggested, from passing stars drawing gas out of the Sun, to nearby exploding stars providing material. All these theories have come up short at some point. * The theory which best explains the evidence is the “nebular hypothesis”.

    * I suppose it might be interesting to revisit some of the discarded theories to see if they might work to form the type of solar system described here. But as I’m not an expert in the field, I’m not about to suggest that would be a worthwhile activity.

  21. Peter B

    Robert @ #15: Are you serious?

  22. Peter B

    Aaron @ #17 asked: “How do they determine what a “common outcome” would be? How many observations have been made to reach this conclusion? Or have they based this on computer modeling?”

    I think it’s entirely from computer modelling. We understand the effects of gravity at this scale extremely well, and computers are easily able to model the effects. There are even sites on the Internet where you can try out doomsday scenarios like this (though please don’t ask me where).

  23. Peter B

    Chris @ #18 said: “What might be interesting would be if something like the entire Jovian system was ejected: a massive gas giant with a large retinue of rocky moons. There’d be no fusion anywhere, but tidal forces on a close enough moon (something like Europa) could possibly create conditions viable for life.”

    That’s a fascinating idea. I wonder what sort of worlds the moons would be? How much visible light would there be? Would enough heat be generated to allow gaseous atmospheres, or would life be restricted to oceans beneath crusts of ice?

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    Awesome news. :-)

    I’ll have to update my old Upsilon Andromedae file which previously said :

    ***

    Upsilon Andromedae Ab, Ac & Ad : Sometimes proclaimed the first multiple exoplanetary system although a second exoplanet was found for Rho-1 (55) Cancris at pretty much the same time making that honour somewhat of a tie. A metal-rich F7 or F8 type dwarf a bit hotter, brighter and shorter-lived than our Sun, Upsilon Andromedae has three planets; the innermost being a Hot Jupiter of at minimum 0.71 times Joves mass orbiting about 0.06 AU every 4 days. The middle exoplanet lies 125 million km from its star in a position equivalent to between Venus and Earth in our Solar system with a year of 241 days. Finally its third known extrasolar planet has a particularly eccentric orbit taking it from as near as 1.5 AU to as far as 3.5 AU and a mass at least four and half times that of Jupiter. Upsilon Andromedae is also accompanied by an M4 red dwarf companion star located 750 AU away and taking 17,000 years to orbit the primary star and its planets. Upsilon Andromedae B is the red dwarf with the exoplanets “named” Ab, Ac & Ad. A 2007 study using the Spitzer space telescope “mapped” Upsilon Andromedae Ab (the innermost HotJove) and showed its day and night side temperatures differed by 1,400 degrees with its night side estimated to be about 100 to 500 degrees Celsius.

    ***

    For more info. see Kaler’s superb stars website entry :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/upsand.html

    Although Kaler hasn’t updated it yet as of the time I’m writing this.

    It’s also got a wikipedia page too : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upsilon_Andromedae

    – again NOT updated with this discovery yet at time of writing.

    I find it so astonishing that we can learn so much and have revealed so many secrets of another stellar & exoplanetary system although there is still so much to learn. :-)

    Wish I had an FTL starship that could take me (& others, I’d be happy to share!) to the Upsilon Andromedan system to see these worlds first hand even though they’re likely sterile and lifeless. (Although any hypothetical large moons could perhaps be another story.)

    Also :

    Unfortunately, Ups And b orbits too close to its parent star to get an accurate mass for it. That’ll have to wait for the future, with new techniques and better instruments.

    I wonder – could Ups And b’s mass be determined by using its gravitational influence (which okay will admittedly probably be small) on its fellow superjovian exoplanets?

    Finally, could these worlds have grown so massive through colliding with other proto-gas giants when this system was formed? Imagine how big Jupiter could have been if it had merged with and absorbed Saturn, Ouranos and Neptune as well!

  25. Pi-needles

    @4. Blaidd Drwg Says:

    Also, I must need new glasses, when I read the bit about Sedna, I read it as having a large KILT, now I suddenly have an urge to watch the new Doctor Who – mostly for Amy…

    Me too – watching Amy Pond is, well, pretty compelling! Mmmm .. Amy. ;-)

    @ 13. Buzz Parsec Says:

    The Brady Bunch system?

    The Ups-And- Downs system? ;-)

    Or the See-saw one given the tilt means that planet will be up ..and then down? ;-)

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    This isn’t a huge surprise. Pluto may or may not be a planet by your definition, but it orbits the Sun at an angle of 17° with respect to the Earth. Sedna, an object about the same size as Pluto in the outer solar system, also has a large tilt.

    There are also other solar system examples such as Eris which has an orbital tilt of 44 degrees (see : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eris_Orbit.svg ) & the most extremely tilted object of all the ice dwarf /comet(oid?) 2008 KV 42 or “Drac” :

    ***

    2008 KV 42 nicknamed “Drac” or “Dracula” is the first backwards orbiting Centaur which has a weird highly inclined (104 degrees), retrograde orbit taking it from 20 to 70 AU. The odd orbit suggests that 2008 KV42 may have been pulled into our solar system from the Oort cloud. Thus “Drac”’s discovery may finally show how such objects transition from the Oort cloud to become comets. It was found on May 31st 2008.

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_KV42

    ***

    Yes I certainly *do* consider Pluto to be a proper planet too – and this is more evidence that, weird orbit or not, Pluto is, indeed, a planet. ;-)

    After all, there are other worlds of around the same size nearby to Upsilon And c (suggested nickname : “upsilon-And-downsilon – see?”) and it is in an oddball orbit just like Pluto has other worlds a bit smaller* nearby and like “Upsilon-and-downsilon” Pluto’s in an odd orbit too.

    Personally, my preferred definition of what is a planet is a test of three simple things :

    1) Is it round because of its own gravity?

    (If too small then its a comet /asteroid /planetoid.)

    2) Is it – or has it ever been – self-luminous via its own core nuclear fusion of some variety?

    (If so then its a brown dwarf or star incl. black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs etc ..)

    3) Is it orbiting another planet directly instead of orbiting a primary sun or brown dwarf or common barycentre?

    (If so then its a moon or natural satellite.)

    If any heavenly body answers yes to question (1) but no to the other two questions then, far as I’m concerned, it should be a termed a planet.

    With that broad ‘planet’ category then being sub-divided based on composition / structure (eg. Earth-like, gas giant, ice dwarf, etc ..) and orbital position (Hot Jupiter, Super-Earth, Super-Pluto,)

    Doesn’t that sound reasonable?

    ———————–

    * Oh, okay & one world that’s just the tiniest smidgin larger too – Eris – but Eris is only just bigger than Pluto and

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    D’oh! Forgot to finish that line didn’t I? Make that :

    ——

    * Oh, okay & one world that’s just the tiniest smidgin larger too – Eris – but Eris is only just bigger than Pluto and not many others even approaching Pluto’s size are known. Makemake is just 3/4’s Pluto’s size and Haumea – and Sedna too – are, roughly, only 1/3rd Pluto’s size. Besides size isn’t really that important is it here – to paraphrase Dr Suess : “a planet’s a planet no matter how small!’ ;-)

    I really don’t know why folks seem so upset at the thought of adding more planets to the list either. We have added 500 or so more new planets found outside our solar system so what’s not to like about adding a few more (or even ten or twenty or so more) new worlds to our own solar system? Far as I’m concerned, the more planets the merrier! ;-)

    Now, do we compel school-children to memorise all these new names and worlds – no, but we do let them know they’re out there and count as well. I would have no problem saying (or thinking kids should be taught) that our solar system consists of 4 rocky inner planets, 4 gas giants and some 20 or however many ice dwarf planets like Pluto, Eris, Sedna, etc .. :-)

    @10. Anonym Says:

    In the oblique view of the Inner Solar System, NASA has Earth and Venus on the same orbital ring.

    Yes, so they are – well spotted. :-)

    They’ve got the orbit of Venus there but Venus is sharing Earth’s orbital track. Ooops! ;-)

  28. Yeebok

    @22 – unfortunately #15 is serious. Also quite incorrect – this blog has a few articles debunking the planet x / mayan calendar malarkey.
    @#10 Anonym, they actually have Mercury on the 2nd orbit out from Sol if you look closely. So Venus is on Earth’s orbit, and Mercury’s on Venus’. Well spotted though I’d not have noticed without your mentioning it.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Has this been confirmed? How do they determine what a “common outcome” would be? How many observations have been made to reach this conclusion? Or have they based this on computer modeling?

    AFAIU from reading psost such as these it is often observed as ejected stars in galaxy clusters and sometimes as vagrant exoplanets (seen by gravitational lensing) and clusters in or near galaxies, and galaxies in galaxy clusters. All of these “lots of massive objects in one system” systems are common.

    I also believe it is a common outcome of models of super-massive black holes behavior in galaxy mergers. I.e. if there are three or more SMBH, chances are the odd ones gets ejected before the final merger can take place.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I have a question and it ties into the fact that perhaps a majority of extrasolar planets so far discovered have quite eccentric orbits: What if it’s all (or at least mostly) being caused by close passes between stars, which cause all sorts of chaos for the planets orbiting them?

    Actually the current distribution (a href=”http://exoplanets.org/exoplot/exoPlot.html”>available here) peaks at the same low or lower eccentricity as Earth (91 objects below e=0.022 with Earth at e=0.017). The mode of the apparently very narrow (remaining bins max out at a mere 24) log-normal like distribution is definitively on the low side.

    But essentially you are correct, remaining exoplanets tail up to large eccentricities. They may not need a specific theory for eccentricities given that the tail look so depressed. (And that with a distribution that may amplify eccentricities from observer effects such as resulting from using gravitational pulling in wobble methods.) But it could be interesting to know if there are common mechanisms.

    The most odd-ball exoplanets are heavily tilted or even retro-grade; here are 6 of them. Given that these are Hot Jupiters one can definitely state that this is likely caused by migration. (And I think that these common observations has to replace my ejection hypothesis in an earlier comment here. Unless ejections are needed in the process to arrive at these migrated oddballs; that is not what the article suggests however.)

    One can speculate that eccentricities may be caused by the same mechanism. I believe that is what is observed in modeling. Whereupon planets may “de-eccentricify” if there are enough planetoids left to scatter off. That would also naturally explain the seen eccentricity distribution I would think.

  31. Aerimus

    I love how the “flat solar system” simile changes over time. It used to be flat “like a record”, then “like a CD” and now “like a DVD”. I guess in a few years it will be flat like a BD, and from there, who knows…

  32. Phil, this is beyond amazing and nifty. This is why I love science.

  33. Tom Huffman

    “Our solar system is pretty neat and orderly. ” — Well, except for Texas.

    They’re on the same planet? Try telling that to the Texans! ;)

  34. andy

    The exoplanets catalogue contains disproportionately high numbers of very close-in planets where tidal circularisation of the orbit is a major concern. The reason hot Jupiters are common in the exoplanets catalogue is because they are easy to find, while in fact they seem to be pretty rare. Remove the short-period planets and the eccentricity distribution becomes very different.

    On another note, Messier Tidy Upper’s proposed definition of planets would lead to a description of the Upsilon Andromedae A system as a star orbited by a planet (b), orbited by a brown dwarf (c), orbited by a circumbinary planet (d). This is clearly a highly contrived description of the system, but one that is forced on you if you insist on deuterium fusion as the dividing line between planets and brown dwarfs.

    Similarly, while the IAU definition itself is poorly-worded and was enforced in a dubious manner, the inclusion of objects like Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake in the list of planets obscures the large-scale architecture of our own solar system. Messier Tidy Upper’s argument that the planets in the Upsilon Andromedae system have masses similar to each other is fundamentally missing the point: there is no evidence for these objects being members of a large population of similar-size objects in similar orbits. In short, the Upsilon Andromedae planets are clearly not members of belts, unlike the dwarf planets in our own system which clearly are.

  35. “the planets are titled relative to each other by as much as 30°!”

    That’s impressive! I didn’t even know different names had different inclinations. Is this like boy versus girl names?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist being snarky.

  36. This all fits nicely with my “First Law of Planetary Building” 8-)
    http:##omnologos.wordpress.com#2009#10#07#first-law-of-planetary-building

    (a) First Law of Planetary Building: no two planets will ever be alike.

    (b) Corollary #1: if two planets are almost identical, then at least one of them will have at least one outrageously peculiar feature.

    (c) Corollary #2: Universes made of perfectly identical planets are not allowed.

  37. @MTU (28-29):

    I saw an amazing speech by Neil deGrasse Tyson in DC where he talked about specifically what you said:

    I really don’t know why folks seem so upset at the thought of adding more planets to the list either. We have added 500 or so more new planets found outside our solar system so what’s not to like about adding a few more (or even ten or twenty or so more) new worlds to our own solar system? Far as I’m concerned, the more planets the merrier!

    If your only parameters for a planet are ‘it’s round, it’s not a star, it’s not a moon’ then you’re completely missing the point. Yes, Pluto is a part of our heritage and since the time we were school children, we were told it was the ninth planet. But simply saying an object is a planet because ‘it’s round’ holds no value.

    I prefer the ‘terrestrial planet’, ‘gas planet’, ‘dwarf planet’ structure, myself, because it has statistical and scientific value. I don’t consider our solar system to have nine ‘planets.’ Instead, our solar system has four terrestrial planets, four gas planets, and a boatload of dwarf planets.

    So that’s why we care about the number of planets, because simply lumping everything together into one category makes absolutely no sense in a scientific, statistical way.

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