Before I get onto the main part of the post, I'd like to apologise for the lack of short posts over the weekend but life's been hectic. Part of the reason for this is that I'm going to be away at a conference next week. I plan to queue up a post to automatically go live next Wednesday since I'm not sure how reliable my internet access will be (also because I'm not taking my laptop and will be relying on Blogger's willingness to talk to my iPad, another thing of which I am not confident). On the other hand, said conference should give me lots of fodder for short, if not long, posts. So that's something to look forward to.
On to the topic of the week! Today I am going to be writing about another crazy exoplanetary system. However, unlike Kepler 11, this one isn't quite confirmed yet. KOI stands for Kepler Object of Interest and means that it's a system that the Kepler mission has identified as potentially containing some planets (four in this case) but they haven't been confirmed by other supporting data. Because science is all about the independent evidence. Nevertheless, this is a blog about science fiction, so we are quite at home to a little speculation. As such, please remember that all of the facts I state below about planets are as yet unconfirmed and haven't quite passed into official scientific cannon.
Kepler Object of Interest 730
First, some basic facts about the system. The star has designations KOI 730 or KIC #10227020 (one of these is easier to remember than the other, so guess which I'll be using). It is similar to the sun, but slightly larger and slightly cooler (by a couple of hundred degrees). It is more than 4200 light years away. The four planets are all very close in to the star, much closer than even Mercury's orbit in the solar system, making them conclusively uninhabitable to life as we know it.
Here is a screenshot illustrating the system from this Kepler Candidates Exoplanet app (not to be confused with the other one I've referenced before which was of confirmed planets, albeit otherwise pretty much identical).
That's OK, because that's not the particularly interesting thing about this system. The scientifically interesting thing is that this system is locked in an orbital resonance. An orbital resonance is when two planets (or moons) orbit in such a way that they both complete an integer number of orbits in the same length of time. (An integer is a whole number such as 1, 2, 3, etc.) Some examples from the solar system are the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Ganymede, which are locked in a 1:2:4 resonance of orbital periods. This means that Ganymede's and Europa's periods (how long it takes them to complete one orbit around Jupiter) are respectively four times and twice the period of Io. (Sometimes this might be written 4:2:1 indicating that Io makes completes four orbits in the time it takes Europa to complete two and Ganymede to complete one. It depends on the convention being used.) Another example is Neptune and Pluto locked in a 2:3 period orbital resonance (so Neptune completes three orbits in the time it takes Pluto to complete two). A different sort of resonance is that experienced by Mercury, which completes two orbits in the time it takes to make three revolutions (so three Mercurian days are equal to two Mercurian years).
Orbital resonances can either make the system, or more specifically, the bodies involved in the resonance, stable or unstable. Yep, I know that sounds like they don't do anything because both possible outcomes are covered, but that's not true. What I mean is that if the resonance is unstable, you get things like gaps in the rings of Saturn (caused by some of Saturn's moons). On the other hand, the Jovian moons I mentioned before are in a stable resonance and Mercury is in its spin-orbit resonance rather than being tidally locked thanks to the gravitational tugs of other planets.
Which brings me to some of the effects of orbital resonance. Bodies locked in an orbital resonance exert a greater gravitational influence on each other than they otherwise would. For example, when Ganymede, Io and Europa are all lined up (Io and Ganymede on one side, Europa on the opposite side of Jupiter), they all experience a heightened tidal effect as the gravitational pulls of the other two planets add directly to the pull of Jupiter, causing additional friction in the planet interiors (and, for example, contributing to Io's volcanism).
Back to KOI 730
So I mentioned that KOI 730 has four planets and that these are locked in an orbital resonance. According to the first articles I read about it (in New Scientist and somewhere else I can't recall) and the original paper (section 5.3 is specifically about KOI 730) the resonance scheme for KOI 730 is 6:4:4:3. Notice the two fours there? That is why there were a spate of pop science articles about this system. Those two fours indicate that two of the planets are in the same orbit since orbital periods depend only on the star's mass and the distance of the planet from the star.
Two planets in the same orbit. They're located at two of the Lagrange points you might remember me mentioning a while back. Due to their positioning, they are known as trojan planets after the trojan asteroids that follow and precede Jupiter and Saturn in these same Lagrange points. The two planets are 118º apart along their orbit and are slowly, over millions of years, edging towards each other (at least; the authors of the paper speculate that they might last billions of years).
But yes, eventually they will collide.
The configuration of these two planets, KOI 730.02 and KOI 730.03, is such that they form an equilateral triangle with the star as the third point. Unfortunately, this puts the second planet as far away from the first as the sun, making it about a quarter of the height of the full moon as seen in Earth's sky. It would also always be about two-thirds illuminated and it wouldn't move around in the sky relative to the stars. If the planets were tidally locked to their sun then the other planet would stay locked in the same position in the sky while the stars moved around it, which would be fairly cool to observer. (Just think of the mythology that could arise surrounding that set up!)
It also bears mentioning that one of the theories of Earth's creation has two proto-planets forming at Lagrange points like these trojan planets. The other proto-planet, usually labelled Theia, and proto-Earth, inched towards each other and eventually collided, merging and splashing, so to speak, to form Earth and moon as we now know them.
Later, when I googled this again in preparation for writing this blog post, I found this article from Sky & Telescope, which features one of the authors of the original paper saying that further analysis of the data suggests a 8:6:4:3 resonance might be more fitting. This turns one of the trojan planets into a different orbit, farther out, and makes the system less exciting. I mean, a system in which all the planets are in resonance with each other is still pretty notable, but it's just not quite as imagination-grabbing as TWO PLANETS IN THE SAME ORBIT. Although, there's still potential for interesting story-science there when the planets line up and whatnot.
Oh well, co-orbiting planets in KOI 730 or not, the concept was around before this paper was written and there's no firm reason to not suppose we couldn't have trojan planets somewhere else. Maybe a gas giant with, instead of trojan asteroids following/leading it around, a full-sized terrestrial planet. Or two terrestrial planets sharing a habitable orbit...
The possibilities are endless. And science is cool even when it's speculative.