WASP-43b is the hot Jupiter that is closest to its parent star, around which it orbits in only 19 hours. At such a close location, tidal interactions between the planet and the star will be intense. That means that we expect the planet to be phase locked (with its rotation period equalling the orbital period, so that the same side always faces the star), and we expect the orbit to be circular (any eccentricity having been damped by tides), and we expect the orbit to be aligned with the rotation axis of the star.
Tidal damping of the alignment of the orbit is the subject of much investigation. It seems to be most efficient if the planet orbits cooler stars, and much less efficient if the planet orbits a hotter star. This might be because cooler stars have large “convective zones” in their outer layers, which can efficiently dissipate tidal energy, whereas hotter stars have only very shallow convective zones with little mass in them.
Since WASP-43b orbits a cool star, a K7 star with a surface temperature of only 4400 Kelvin, that’s another reason for expecting its orbit to be aligned. This has now been confirmed by observations with the Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo. The way to measure the orbital alignment of a transiting exoplanet is by the Rossiter–McLaughlin effect. As the planet transits a rotating star, it first obscures one limb and then the other, and since the different limbs will be either blue-shifted or red-shifted, according to how the star is spinning, the effect on the overall light of star will reveal the path of the orbit.
A new paper by Esposito et al reports R–M measurements for three planets including WASP-43b. The data show the classic R–M signature of an aligned planet.
The upper panel shows the change in stellar radial-velocity around the planet’s orbit, caused by the gravitational tug of the planet. The lowest panel highlights the data through transit, showing the expected excursion first to a redder light (when blue-shifted light on the approaching limb is occulted) and then to blue light (when the red-shifted receding limb is occulted).
As a transiting exoplanet tracks across its star it progressively blocks out different regions of the face of the star. Since the star will be rotating, one limb of the star will be moving towards us (and so its light will be blueshifted) while the other limb recedes (producing a redshift). The blocking of light by the planet thus changes the spectral lines from the star. This is called the Rossiter–McLaughlin effect, and it can be used to discern the track of the planet’s orbit.
Brett Addison and Jonti Horner have written a nice introduction to such techniques on the widely read The Conversation website. Since large numbers of WASP planets orbit stars bright enough to enable a detection of the Rossiter–McLaughlin effect, around half of the planets with measured orbits are WASP planets.
Addison and Horner illustrate their piece with an artist’s conception of the polar orbit of WASP-79b:
A team led by Brett Addison has been pointing the Anglo-Australian Telescope at WASP planets, trying to discern whether the planet’s orbit is aligned with the star’s spin axis.
The rotation of the star means that one limb is approaching us, and so is blue-shifted, while the other limb is receding, and so is red-shifted. The planet can occult blue-shifted light (making a spectral line redder) and then red-shifted light. This is called the Rossiter–McLaughlin (or R–M) effect, and allows us to deduce the path of a transiting planet across the face of its star.
Brett Addison and colleagues report the R–M effect for three more WASP planets, WASP-66b, WASP-87b and WASP-103b. Here are their data for WASP-87b:
All three planets appear to have orbital axes aligned with the star’s spin axis. The authors discuss the mechanisms and timescales by which orbits get “damped” by tidal effects and so become aligned with their star.