Newly discovered planet Kepler-413b is about 2,300 light years from Earth. It circles its two suns – an orange and red dwarf – every 66 days. It’s a gas giant that’s larger than the planet Neptune
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It also wobbles like a spinning top.
That’s the conclusion of new research from astronomers examining data from the Kepler Space Telescope. Kepler, which has been used to discover over 3,000 planets outside our own solar system, is a telescope that looks for by observing transits. Transits are portions of stars that appear less bright because something is passing between the telescope and the star, blocking part of the light. When such transits occur periodically over time, astronomers deduce that there’s a planet in a regular orbit around the star. Then using that data, they can learn even more about the nature of that planet.
But when it came to studying these two stars, the research team discovered something unusual – there was something passing in front of the two stars, but it didn’t appear regularly. Instead, they would see the same object transit the star three times every 66 days. Then 800 days would pass with no transit. Then they would observe five transits of about 66 days. And so on.
After reviewing the data, the researchers were able to determine that yes, there was a planet causing these transits. But it was unusual because its orbit wobbles – the way a top will wobble up and down as it’s spinning. From the perspective of Earth, the planet isn’t just moving around its stars, it’s also moving up and down – to the point where sometimes it can’t be seen passing in front of its stars.
So why does the planet orbit its stars in this way? Astronomers aren’t sure yet, but this has opened up a whole new avenue in studying planets. That’s because an interesting side effect of the discovery of this planet is that it introduces the possibility that there are other planets with similar orbital patterns that have been missed – especially planets orbiting multiple suns.
“Presumably there are planets out there like this one that we’re not seeing because we’re in the unfavorable period,” researcher Peter McCullough noted in a NASA press release. “And that’s one of the things that Veselin is researching: Is there a silent majority of things that we’re not seeing?”
If more planets with this type of orbit are discovered, it may end up revolutionizing what we know about how planets and solar systems form in the first place.
Check out more planets outside of our solar system in the gallery below: