An Even Number of Odd Planets?

This is why science rocks!
Let’s be honest, the image of the super stud slash party god slash multi-billionaire slash dedicated scientist is, as far as I can tell, a Hollywood creation. Which is a shame. But all is not lost. Science has given us all a grand dream and a worthy goal; SPACE-NOOKIE! But, as exciting as that may be for some, and you just suddenly completely rethought how you view the space station, in the main it means nothing to the rest of us. However, that may be changing. You see NASA launched this little telescope called KEPLER. It’s job was to find a new planet, one not in our solar system. Really, if it found one, the theory went, then scientists could extrapolate a wide variety of useful facts. Well, Kepler did find a planet. Then another and another and …. well, it has found a ton of them. Some very odd ones too. They found a planet made of ice, a planet made up of diamond and those are just the normal ones.

And one theme has been popping up over and over; many of these planets could hold life we would recognize. And, as you know, if we can recognize it we can have sex with it. Face it, even if they turned out to be more akin to our dino-ancestors than us there would be people lining up for some hot, reptiloid, action.

But, bizarre or not, planets seemed to follow a basic rule, rocky planets near their sun and gaseous ones in deeper orbits. Your easiest example is to see where Earth is in relation to Jupiter. That seemed to be the basic rule. There were some exceptions with gaseous planets that had active cores, like mini-stars, being in closer orbits but science seemed to expect them so there wasn’t much there to write about.

Well, that all just changed. Mike Wall at MSNBC is reporting that Kepler has found two planets that completely ignore our laws of physics. At least the ones that applied to planetary orbits.

And, yes, I meant to use past tense.

It is science fiction made fact: Astronomers have discovered two alien planets around the same star whose orbits come so close together that each rises in the night sky of its sister world like an exotic full moon.

The newfound planets are 1,200 light-years from Earth, researchers said. They differ greatly in size and composition, but come within just 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) of each other, closer than any other pair of planets known, according to a new study.

One of the newly discovered alien planets, called Kepler-36b, appears to be a rocky “super-Earth” 4.5 times as massive as our planet. The other, Kepler-36c, is a gaseous, Neptune-size world about eight times as massive as Earth. The two planets meet up every 97 days in a conjunction that would make each dramatically visible in the other’s sky.

“These two worlds are having close encounters,” Josh Carter of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a lead author of research published online Thursday by the journal Science, said in a statement.

At their closest approach, the two planets are separated by five times the distance between Earth and the moon. How such different bodies ended up in such similar orbits may be tough for current theories of planet formation and migration to explain, researchers said.

“This is unprecedented,” Eric Agol of the University of Washington, another lead author, told via email. “They are as different in density as Earth and Saturn (the highest and lowest density planets in our solar system), yet they are 30 times closer than any pair of planets in our solar system.”

The two known planets in the Kepler-36 system — which is located in the constellation Cygnus the Swan — were detected by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

Kepler is staring continuously at more than 150,000 stars, watching for telltale brightness dips caused when planets cross in front of the stars from the telescope’s perspective. Since its March 2009 launch, Kepler has flagged more than 2,300 potential alien planets; while only a small fraction have been confirmed to date, mission scientists think more than 80 percent of them will end up being the real deal.

Kepler-36c, which is about 3.7 times wider than Earth, likely has a rocky core surrounded by a substantial atmosphere filled with lots of hydrogen and helium, researchers said.

Kepler-36b, on the other hand, is a super-Earth just 1.5 times wider than our planet. Iron likely constitutes about 30 percent of its mass, water around 15 percent and atmospheric hydrogen and helium less than 1 percent, researchers said.

Though they’re very different in size and makeup, the two planets travel on surprisingly similar paths around their host star. Kepler-36c orbits once every 16 days, at an average distance of 12 million miles (19 million kilometers). Kepler-36b orbits each 14 days and sits about 11 million miles (18 million kilometers) from the star.

Kepler-36b probably formed relatively close to the star, while Kepler-36c likely took shape farther out. Astronomers model large-scale migrations that can bring initially far-flung planets much closer together, but the peculiar Kepler-36 system may force some refinements, researchers said.

“These models rely on assumptions that will likely have to be ‘tweaked’ or refined to account for both b and c’s proximity and compositional differences,” Carter told via email. “The existence of Kepler-36 may help clarify or invalidate these assumptions.”

Both planets are likely too hot to support life as we know it, with Kepler-36b probably sporting lava flows on its surface. They orbit roughly three times closer to their host star, known as Kepler-36a, than the hellishly hot planet Mercury does to our sun. And Kepler-36a is likely a bit hotter than our star, researchers said.

“Planet c would appear roughly 2.5 times the size of the full moon when viewed from the surface of planet b. Conversely, planet b would appear about the size of the full moon on planet c,” Carter said.

“We can speculate on the appearance of planet c: It may appear slightly more purple that Neptune,” he added. “The purple hue owes to absorption of red and yellow by sodium and potassium. There could also be a slight brown tint owing to hazes of photo-disassociated methane.”

Such dramatic vistas could well be around for many years to come, researchers said, for the orbits of Kepler-36b and c appear unlikely to change anytime soon.

“We are addressing this in a follow-up paper, but the short answer is that yes, these do appear to be stable on a long timescale,” Agol said.

Okay, so there’s no space-nookie waiting for us there but there is a lot of knowledge. when we figure out how two planets can live stably like that we will have a much keener understanding of exo-planetary dynamics.

Closer to home, relativistically speaking, Irene Klotz from Discover writes that Pluto is showing scientists how binary star system can have stable planetary orbits. And stability is the first requirement for life.

And life is a major prerequisite for space nookie.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG (FOX! Sports) every Friday around 9:10 AM.

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