Planet found that defies the laws of physics

Steve Connor
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:30

It's the planet that really shouldn't exist – or at least not for long. It is 10 times the size of Jupiter, orbits its own star in under 24 hours and should soon be spiralling into the surface of its searingly-hot sun.

Under the laws of physics, planet WASP-18b orbiting a star 1,000 light years from Earth is too big and too close to its sun for comfort. The tidal interactions between the two massive objects should be pulling them together in a deadly gravitational embrace.

British astronomers say they have made a highly unusual planetary discovery in finding WASP-18b. Either they just happened to have witnessed an exceptionally rare event that they have likened to winning the lottery, or they do not understand the tidal forces affecting distant planets beyond our own solar system.

"The problem with this planet is that it's very massive and very close to its star. It should be creating tidal bulging that makes it spiral into its star," said Professor Andrew Collier Cameron of St Andrew's University.

The planet is at least one billion years old, yet at this rate it should have no more than half a million years left before it crashes into its own star. The chances of finding it at this point in its life cycle is about 1 in 2,000.

Professor Cameron said: "This is another bizarre planet discovery. The situation is analogous to the way tidal friction is gradually causing the Earth's spin to slow down, and the Moon to spiral away from the Earth," he said. "In this case, however, the spin of the star is slower than the orbit of the planet, so the star should be spinning up, and the planet spiralling in," he said.

WASP-18b, one of more than 300 known "exoplanets" orbiting distant stars, was discovered by a team led by Coel Hellier of Keele University, whose study is published in the journal Nature.

It is a hot, Jupiter-like planet where temperatures exceed 2,100C – high enough to create clouds of silica-based gems, according to Professor Cameron. If anyone could visit this planet, and survive, they might see a sky full of diamonds and sapphires, he said.

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