Weird Planet’s Orbit is Misaligned – GJ 436b

December 22, 2017
3 minutes read
Weird Planet’s Orbit is Misaligned – GJ 436b

So, we are talking about the weird GJ 436b. The evaporating planet is highly elliptical and its weird behavior indicates a massive hidden presence.

GJ 436b lies 33 light years from Earth and it orbits extremely close to its star.

Planets in our solar system rotate tidily around in their orbits in roughly the same plane as the Sun’s equator. But this is not the case for this weird exoplanet.

A new study, published in Nature and led by University of Geneva (UNIGE) in Switzerland explains how the exoplanet Gliese 436b follows a bizarre orbital path nearly perpendicular to the equatorial plane of its parent red dwarf star, Gliese 436, meaning that it zooms over the star’s poles.

Astronomers made these observations with the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. They also used HARPS-N (for Northern Hemisphere), installed at the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands.

Gliese 436b

Astronomers discovered Gliese 436b in 2004. The planet is about the size of Neptune.  In 2015, the same team detected a giant cloud of gas escaping from the planet. Thus, streaming out for millions of kilometers behind it in a tail reminiscent of a comet.

Gliese 436b is very close to its parent star and goes around it every 2.6 Earth days.

“This planet is under enormous tidal forces because it is incredibly close to its star, barely 3 percent of the Earth-sun distance,” study lead author Vincent Bourrier, an astronomer at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, said in a statement.

“The star is a red dwarf whose lifespan is very long,” Bourrier added. “The tidal forces it induces should have since circularized the orbit of the planet, but this is not the case!”

So, this new discovery defies current models of the evolution of planetary systems. So, researchers propose that a more massive, yet-undiscovered planet is also lurking around the star, disrupting the orbit of Gliese 436b.

Calculations also suggest that GJ 436b did not always sport its peculiar tail. The alien world probably once orbited much farther away from its parent star but another undiscovered planet pushed it inward at some point.

“Our next goal is to identify the mysterious planet that has upset this planetary system,” Bourrier said.

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Thumbnail image: Artist’s illustration of the Neptune-size exoplanet GJ 436b, which is surrounded by a massive gas cloud that streams behind the planet like a comet’s tail for millions of miles. Credit: Mark Garlick/University of Warwick

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