Tidally locked exoplanets may be more common than previously thought

August 14, 2017
This artist's concept depicts a planetary system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Many exoplanets to be found by coming high-powered telescopes will probably be tidally locked—with one side permanently facing their host star—according to new research by astronomer Rory Barnes of the University of Washington.

Barnes, a UW assistant professor of astronomy and astrobiology, arrived at the finding by questioning the long-held assumption that only those stars that are much smaller and dimmer than the sun could host orbiting planets that were in synchronous orbit, or tidally locked, as the is with the Earth. His paper, "Tidal Locking of Habitable Exoplanets," has been accepted for publication by the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy.

Tidal locking results when there is no side-to-side momentum between a body in space and its gravitational partner and they become fixed in their embrace. Tidally locked bodies such as the Earth and moon are in synchronous rotation, meaning that each takes exactly as long to rotate around its own axis as it does to revolve around its host star or gravitational partner. The moon takes 27 days to rotate once on its axis, and 27 days to orbit the Earth once.

The moon is thought to have been created by a Mars-sized celestial body slamming into the young Earth at an angle that set the world spinning initially with approximately 12-hour days.

"The possibility of tidal locking is an old idea, but nobody had ever gone through it systematically," said Barnes, who is affiliated with the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

In the past, he said, researchers tended to use that 12-hour estimation of Earth's rotation period to model exoplanet behavior, asking, for example, how long an Earthlike with a similar orbital spin might take to become tidally locked.

"What I did was say, maybe there are other possibilities—you could have slower or faster initial rotation periods," Barnes said. "You could have planets larger than Earth, or planets with eccentric orbits—so by exploring that larger parameter space, you find that in fact the old ideas were very limited, there was just one outcome there."

"Planetary formation models, however, suggest the initial rotation of a planet could be much larger than several hours, perhaps even several weeks," Barnes said. "And so when you explore that range, what you find is that there's a possibility for a lot more exoplanets to be tidally locked. For example, if Earth formed with no moon and with an initial 'day' that was four days long, one model predicts Earth would be tidally locked to the sun by now."

Barnes writes: "These results suggest that the process of tidal locking is a major factor in the evolution of most of the potentially habitable exoplanets to be discovered in the near future."

Being tidally locked was once thought to lead to such extremes of climate as to eliminate any possibility of life, but astronomers have since reasoned that the presence of an atmosphere with winds blowing across a planet's surface could mitigate these effects and allow for moderate climates and life.

Barnes said he also considered the planets that will likely be discovered by NASA's next planet-hunting satellite, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS, and found that every potentially habitable planet it will detect will likely be tidally locked.

Even if astronomers discover the long-sought Earth "twin" orbiting a virtual twin of the sun, that world may be tidally locked.

"I think the biggest implication going forward," Barnes said, "is that as we search for life on any exoplanets we need to know if a planet is tidally locked or not."

Explore further: Earth-like planets around small stars likely have protective magnetic fields, aiding chance for life

More information: Tidal Locking of Habitable Exoplanets, arXiv:1708.02981 [astro-ph.EP] arxiv.org/abs/1708.02981

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rrwillsj
not rated yet Aug 14, 2017
Camn it all to earth. Rationally, this is yet one more piece of the puzzle, for this Age of the Cosmos. Yet another small bit confirming my suspicions against the overflated belief that Earth worlds are common.

Emotionally though? I hope to hades that eventually I will be proven wrong. However, if wishes were horses, we'd be up to our eyebrows in manure.
psmolen
not rated yet Aug 15, 2017
This paper compares two theories, constant phase lag and constant time lag for tidal response (how much the tidal bulge on the planet lags the overhead passage of the star). He only gets lots of planets to be tidally locked with the constant phase lag theory. But I feel strongly that the constant time lag theory is better motivated physically. As the rotation slows down, it makes much more sense that the bulge peak should move closer to directly underneath the star overhead. With this theory much fewer of his planets get tidally locked, and intelligent life can still flourish on planets around G and even K type stars
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2017
psm, okay, your disagreement with the conclusions of this study seem reasonable.

However, that makes you responsible to come up with evidence, experiments, observations proving your contention.
GoodGuy
not rated yet Aug 16, 2017
How about that. Another demonstration that Earth is indeed the "Privileged Planet" that it is. Go watch the Privileged Planet" documentary and your eyes will be opened to the truth. The truth is out there...
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2017
We, you & me, the entire Human species, aka Homo Anthropophagus are murdering the Earth's biosphere.

Doesn't sound very 'Privileged' to me!
nikola_milovic_378
Aug 17, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
nikola_milovic_378
Aug 17, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2017
What is described as "tidally locked" should be referred to as "electromagnetically locked".

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