Is WASP-12b’s orbital decay driven by obliquity tides?

Tidal interactions between hot-Jupiter exoplanets and the host star should be causing their orbits to decay, such that the planet gradually spirals inwards. For most systems the change would be too small to detect in the decade or so that we’ve been observing them. However, WASP-12b is an exception, showing a clear change in its orbital period.

In a new paper on arXiv, Gracjan Maciejewski et al present the latest data for WASP-12b:

The graph records the change in transit time (“observed minus calculated” times, or O–C), showing that the transits are now occurring eight minutes early owing to a decreasing orbital period.

Such a rate is far faster than observed in other systems, and too large to be explained by the standard theory of tidal interactions.

However, a new paper led by Sarah Millholland suggests an answer. She suggests that the planet is tilted over, so that the axis around which it spins is tilted with respect to the plane of the planet’s orbit.

This means that the star will give rise to strong “obliquity tides” on the planet, and the dissipation of those tides could explain the decay of the orbit. For this to work something must be keeping the planet tilted over. Millholland suggests that a second planet in an outer orbit might be perturbing WASP-12b, keeping it in the high-obliquity state. This scenario requires some fine tuning, but if WASP-12 is the only system known to show this behaviour then the explanation is plausible.