Here is a plot of the timings of the transits of WASP-4b, taken from a new paper led by Luke Bouma:
The curve in the plot shows that the transits are occurring progressively earlier as time passes. One possible explanation is that the planet’s orbit is decaying under the influence of the tidal interaction between the star and planet. This is expected to occur in most hot Jupiters, though how quickly is debated.
However, Bouma have also obtained radial-velocity observations of the system, which show that the star is accelerating towards us. This can result from it being in a wide orbit with another object (the authors suggest a wide-orbiting companion of 10-to-300 Jupiter masses at a distance of 10-to-100 AU). Since the system is accelerating towards us, the light-travel time is decreasing, and this (not orbital decay) means that the transits occur earlier.
Wide companions are expected in hot-Jupiter systems, since, in most theories for the occurrence of hot Jupiters, the gravitational perturbation of a distant companion is needed to shrink the hot-Jupiter orbit down to the current values of only a few days.
Bouma et al recommend continued radial-velocity monitoring of hot Jupiters in order to distinguish orbital decay from accelerations caused by orbiting companions.
Since close-orbiting hot Jupiters are expected to be gradually spiralling inwards, under the influence of tidal interactions with their stars, and since, in addition, the influence of extra, unseen planets in the system could cause changes in transit times, many groups worldwide are monitoring timings of transits of WASP planets.
The latest report on timings of WASP-19b has just been announced by Petrucci et al. The result is the following diagram, showing deviations of timings from a constant ephemeris, plotted against cycle number.
The upshot is that there is no indication of any period change, which then puts limits on how efficient the tidal bulges, caused by the gravitational interaction of the planet with the star, are at dissipating energy.
It is notable, however, that there is clear scatter about the constant-period line, beyond that expected from the error bars on the timings. This means either that the error bars are under-estimating the uncertainties (as would occur if “red noise” in the lightcurves is unaccounted for), or that there is astrophysically real scatter in the timings, perhaps caused by magnetic activity (star spots) on the surface of the star being transited. We need to better understand such timing scatter if we are to be able to judge whether claims of period changes are actually real.
With the TESS satellite observing most of the WASP planets as it surveys the sky, one can use the space-based data quality to look for “transit timing variations” in the WASP planet transits. Such TTVs — slight changes in the time of recurrence of a transit — can be caused by the gravitational perturbation of other planets in the system, and thus can reveal the presence of extra planets even when they themselves do not transit.
A new paper by Kyle Pearson, of the University of Arizona, reports evidence for TTVs in the TESS light-curves of WASP-18 and WASP-126.
Here is the TESS light-curve of WASP-18, showing the transits of the known planet WASP-18b:
And here are possible changes in the transit times, varying systematically with a 2.1-day period (red line):
Here now is the TESS light-curve of WASP-126, showing transits of WASP-126b:
And here are possible TTVs varying systematically with a period of 7.7 days (red line):
The evidence is not yet sufficiently water-tight to be sure of the existence of the extra planets, without adding in further data, but this study points to lots of similar work using TESS data as it continues its multi-year survey.
Closely orbiting hot-Jupiter exoplanets are likely to be spiralling inwards towards their host star as a result of tidal interactions with the star. A new paper by Maciejewski et al reports a possible detection of this orbital-period decay in WASP-12b.
The authors have acquired 31 new transit light-curves over four years, and detect a trend under which the latest transits occur about a minute early compared to an unchanging ephemeris.
Transits of WASP-12b. O–C is the observed time compared to that calculated from an unchanging orbital period. The time (x-axis) is given in both a count of days (BJD) and a count of transits.
This is the most convincing claim yet of a changing orbital period in a hot Jupiter. Whether it shows the spiral infall, though, is less clear. As the authors explain, other tidal interactions between the star and the planet, such as that causing apsidal precession, could account for the effect. Further, in close binary stars there are known to be similar period changes on decade-long timescales that are not fully understood, but which might be caused by Solar-like magnetic cycles on the star.
One suggestion that this is not spiral infall comes from the deduced value of the tidal quality factor, Q, which the authors calculate as 2.5 x 105. This is lower than other estimates of Q as nearer 107.
The way to settle the issue will be to accumulate more data over a longer timespan until the case for spiral infall becomes overwhelming. It will thus be important to continue monitoring WASP-12b, and the other short-period hot Jupiters, over the coming decades.