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Kepler-36: A Pair of Planets with Neighboring Orbits and Dissimilar Densities

Science  03 Aug 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6094, pp. 556-559
DOI: 10.1126/science.1223269

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So Close and So Different

In our solar system, the rocky planets have very distinct orbits from those of the gas giants. Carter et al. (p. 556, published online 21 June) report on a planetary system where this pattern does not apply, posing a challenge to theories of planet formation. Data from the Kepler space telescope reveal two planets with radically different densities orbiting the same star with very similar orbital periods. One planet has a rocky Earth-like composition and the other is akin to Neptune.

Abstract

In the solar system, the planets’ compositions vary with orbital distance, with rocky planets in close orbits and lower-density gas giants in wider orbits. The detection of close-in giant planets around other stars was the first clue that this pattern is not universal and that planets’ orbits can change substantially after their formation. Here, we report another violation of the orbit-composition pattern: two planets orbiting the same star with orbital distances differing by only 10% and densities differing by a factor of 8. One planet is likely a rocky “super-Earth,” whereas the other is more akin to Neptune. These planets are 20 times more closely spaced and have a larger density contrast than any adjacent pair of planets in the solar system.

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