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Rare Planet Boasts Extreme Seasons

Feb 13, 2015 04:15 PM EST
Pictured: An illustration of Kepler-432b's orbit (inner, red) in comparison to the orbit of Mercury around the Sun (outer, orange). The red dot in the middle indicates the position of the star around which the planet is orbiting.
(Photo : Graphic Dr. Sabine Reffert)

A team of astronomers has discovered a rare planet called Kepler-432b that boasts some extreme seasons unlike Earth's own spring, summer, fall and winter, new research finds.

Researchers from Heidelberg University, using the 2.2-meter telescope at Calar Alto Observatory in Andalucía, Spain and the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma (Canary Islands), observed this far-away celestial planet independent of each other.

They found that Kepler-432b is one of the densest and most massive planets ever discovered. It is about the same size as the gas giant Jupiter in our own solar system, however it has six times the mass. What makes a planet like Kepler-432b so interesting to scientists is the unique shape and size of its orbit around it giant host star.

"The majority of known planets moving around giant stars have large and circular orbits. With its small and highly elongated orbit, Kepler-432b is a real 'maverick' among planets of this type," Dr. Davide Gandolfi, a researcher who helped make the discovery, said in a statement.

And due to its unusual orbit, Kepler-432b comes incredibly close to its host star at certain times, and moves very far away at others. This ebb and flow creates enormous temperature differences over the course of the planet's year, which equates to 52 days on Earth.

"During the winter season, the temperature on Kepler-432b is roughly 500 degrees Celsius [932 degrees Fahrenheit]. In the short summer season, it can increase to nearly 1,000 degrees Celsius [1,832 Fahrenheit]," said astronomer Dr. Sabine Reffert, who was involved in the research.

However, astronomers won't be able to view this rare planet and its extreme seasons for long. Kepler-432b's host star - called a "red giant" - has already used up the nuclear fuel in its core and is gradually expanding. Its radius is already four times that of our Sun and will only get larger. At this rate, this red giant will swallow up Kepler-432b in less than 200 million years.

"The days of Kepler-432b are numbered," added researcher Mauricio Ortiz, who led one of the two studies of the planet. "This might be the reason why we do not find other planets like Kepler-432b - astronomically speaking, their lives are extremely short."

The findings were published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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