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The Search for Supereccentric Jupiters

Today we have a guest post from Bekki Dawson. Bekki is a Miller postdoctoral fellow at the UC Berkeley Department of Astronomy. Her research focuses on how planetary systems form and evolve.

The origin of “hot Jupiters,” giant planets orbiting extremely to their host stars, remains a mystery. There are two major theories for how these planets “migrated” from a location like our own Jupiter’s to the close-in orbits we observe today. The first is gentle disk migration, in which the disk out of which the planet forms pushes the planet towards the star. The second theory is more violent: another body in the system perturbs the Jupiter onto a very eccentric (elliptical) orbit. Over time, tides on the planet cause dissipation that shrinks and circularizes the planet’s orbit. In 2012, Aristotle Socrates and collaborators predicted that if this secondary theory is correct, we should find half a dozen “supereccentric” Jupiters in the Kepler sample: Jupiters that are still on very elliptical orbits and have not yet tidally circularized.

To search for these supereccentric Jupiters in the Kepler sample, John Johnson and I developed an approach we call the “photoeccentric effect” to identify eccentric Jupiters from the Kepler photometry. The approach hinges on the fact that a planet transiting on an eccentric orbit will be moving at a very different speed than a planet transiting on a circular orbit with the same orbital period, leading to a different shape and duration for the transit light curve:


Even taking into account various degeneracies, we can easily identity the supereccentric Jupiters from their Kepler light curves. But surprisingly, we didn’t find any, inconsistent with the prediction. Therefore hot Jupiters continue to be a puzzle! However, the expected number was based on the number of planets that transit at least three times in the Kepler data, so in the future we hope to measure the eccentricities of giant planet candidates with only two transits; if those are missing too, the evidence would be even more compelling. Unfortunately, giant planet candidates with only two transits are not automatically caught by the Kepler pipeline, so if you spot any, let me know!

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