Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Locked in place

The Moon orbits the Earth in such a way that the same side always faces us.  Put another way, its periods of revolution and rotation are the same; it takes the same amount of time for the Moon to turn once on its axis as it does to circle the Earth.

This seems like a hell of a coincidence, but there is (of course) a physical explanation for it.  Close orbits -- either of a planet around its host star, or a satellite around a planet -- generate a high tidal force, which is the gradient in the gravitational force experienced by the near side of the orbiting body as compared to the far side.  There's always going to be a tidal force; even tiny Pluto has a greater pull from the Sun on the near side than it does on the far side, but with a small body at that great a distance, the difference is minuscule.  (You're experiencing a tidal force right now; the Earth is pulling harder on your feet than on your head, assuming you're not upside down as you're reading this.)  But the Moon's proximity to the Earth means that the tidal force it experiences is comparatively huge.  So even if it once rotated faster than it revolved, the higher pull on the near side slowed its rotation down -- a sort of gravitational drag -- until the two matched exactly.

The result is called 1:1 tidal locking, and is why (apologies to Pink Floyd) there is no permanently dark side of the Moon.  There's a near-Earth and a far-Earth side, but no matter where you are on the Moon, you'll have a 28-day light/dark cycle.  However, the apparent position of the Earth in the sky doesn't change.  If where you stand on the Moon's surface, the Earth appears to be hovering thirty degrees above the western horizon, that's where it will always be from that perspective.

It's been known for some time that planets can also be tidally locked.  Once again, it's more likely to happen when they orbit close to their host star, which means a lot of tidally-locked planets are probably so hot they're uninhabitable.  But the situation changes if the host star is a red dwarf -- small, low-luminosity stars that are incredibly common, making up almost three-quarters of the stars in the Milky Way.  These stars have such a low heat output that the "Goldilocks zone" -- the distance from the star in which the conditions are "just right" for liquid water to form -- is very close in.

So a star in a red dwarf's habitable zone might well also be tidally locked.

Think of how bizarre a situation that would be.  If the planet is at the right distance for the lit side to be comfortable, there'd be a region of perpetual twilight bounding it, and on the other side of that, permanent, freezing-cold night.  Not only that; this would create the convection cell from hell.  Weather down here on Earth is largely caused by uneven heating of the planet's surface; air warms and rises near the Equator, cools, eventually becoming cool enough to sink and completing the circle.  The Earth's rotation and topography complicate the situation, but basically, that convective rise-and-fall is what generates wind, clouds, rain, snow, and the rest of the meteorological picture.

On a tidally-locked planet, these processes would be almost certainly be amplified beyond anything we ever see on Earth.  Especially the twilit boundary zone -- the constant heating of the bright side, and loss of heat to radiation on the dark side, would cause the atmosphere on the bright side to rise, drawing in cold air from the dark side fast.  The result would be a screaming hurricane across the boundary.

At least, so we think.  We don't have any tidally-locked planets to study, only airless moons.

A study out of McGill University has confirmed the first tidally-locked exoplanet, LHS 3844b, a "super-Earth" that was identified by measuring the light coming off the planet at different places in its orbit -- something that allowed the researchers to estimate its temperature.

Artist's impression of the dark side of LHS 3844b [Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)]

Chances are, LHS 3844b doesn't have much of an atmosphere, so the convective hellscape I described above might not apply to it.  Still, the idea that astronomers have identified that an exoplanet is tidally locked is kind of astonishing.  The first exoplanet was only discovered in 1992; in the intervening thirty-odd years not only have we found thousands of them, we're now getting so good at analyzing them we can figure out the size of their orbits, how fast they rotate, and the probable composition of their atmospheres.

Our understanding of the universe has accelerated so much, it's hard even to imagine where it might be headed.  The idea that we could not only find an exoplanet around a distant star, but determine that the same side of the planet always faces the star, boggles the mind.

The future of astronomy is looking pretty stellar, isn't it?


No comments:

Post a Comment