Astronomers say they've found a bizarre star system where two of the planetary orbits are 45 degrees out of whack, but do just fine.
The secret to the planets' success appears to be the harmony of those misaligned orbits, plus the influence of a third object that's even bigger and farther away from the parent star.
The strange case of Kepler-56 is reported in this week's issue of the journal Science. Kepler-56 is the name of the host star, one of 150,000 stars that have been monitored for several years by NASA's Kepler space telescope. Even though the Kepler probe itself is now out of service, scientists involved in the $600 million mission are continuing to pore over the data collected so far.
Kepler can detect worlds in distant star systems by watching for the telltale dimming of light as planets pass over the disk of their parent stars. The probe can also study the structure of the star itself, using a technique known as asteroseismology.
Kepler-56, which lies about 3,000 light-years from Earth, is more than four times as wide as our sun, and 30 percent more massive. The Kepler probe detected two planets wide enough to be considered gas giants, tracing orbits that lasted 10.5 and 21 Earth days. But the asteroseismic readings indicated that the sun's axis was tipped 45 degrees with respect to the plane of the planets' orbits.
That's weird, considering that planets typically form from a disk of gas and dust that whirls in the same plane as the equator of their parent star. Sure, some planetary systems are oddballs: For example, the Beta Pictoris system appears to have a warped disk of debris, and Upsilon Andromedae has planets that are tipped 30 degrees with respect to each other. Planetary systems with close-in "hot Jupiters" are considered most likely to have tilted orbits.