What does the discovery of a strange new planet mean? From any perspective, it may mean that the universe continues to surprise us with its variety. From a Christian perspective, it could support the idea that a creator-artist who enjoys making different things has left a signature for his work.
Scientists recently found another first-of-its-kind exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star roughly 100 light-years away. The new extrasolar planet has been called unusual, joining other unusual examples such as:
NLTT 5306 b, the almost star-like planet 56 times more massive than Jupiter that orbits its star once every day-and-a-half, or maybe
The twosuper-earths orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. Super-earths appear common among other stars yet are unlike anything in our solar system.
The recent discovery, dubbed HR 5183b, contains more than three times the mass of Jupiter, but its orbit brings it closer to its star than our asteroid belt and farther out than Neptune. And it takes somewhere around 75 years to orbit. Discoveries like this usually lead to a better understanding of how our solar system formed. Here’s how. that might be the case for HR 5183b.
An Elongated Orbit
As the diagrams below show, the orbit of HR 5183b resembles that of Halley’s comet far more than it does Jupiter. Its eccentricity has captured scientists’ interest. All the large planets in the solar system have an eccentricity much smaller than 0.1 (nearly circular orbits). HR 5183b has an eccentricity of 0.84 (highly elongated orbit).1 Thus far, all the known mechanisms for making Jupiter-sized planets at Jupiter-like distances tend to result in orbits with low eccentricity—like those seen in our solar system.
Figures: The Strange Orbit of HR 5183 b (left); credit: Caltech; Halley’s Comet animation (right); credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Size of Orbit
One remarkable feature of this planet relates to the size of its orbit. Normally, the detection of an exoplanet requires at least one full orbit to validate. Although HR 5183b takes somewhere between 45 and 100 years to complete an orbit, astronomers found the exoplanet with observations that started in 1997. HR 5183b spends most of its time far away from its host star, moving at relatively uniform speeds. As it approaches the star, it accelerates with a characteristic signature that a couple decades of observation revealed.
A StarBillions of Years Old
Most of the Jupiter-sized planets orbiting at Jupiter-like distances have been found using the direct detection method (although microlensing techniques find exoplanets in this range also). The direct detection, or imaging, method works best for distant planets around young stars because young planets tend to emit more visible and infrared light than older planets. The fact that HR 5183b orbits a star 7.7 billion years old adds to its unusual nature.
What We Can Learn
The authors of the paper announcing the discovery of HR 5183b suspect that this find represents the first detection of an unexplored class of exoplanets. As scientists seek to understand how this unusual class of exoplanet formed, they will gain better insight into the process necessary to form Earth-like planets. According to the paper, “With this discovery, we continue to uncover the astonishing diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy.”
And it indicates at least one more way that exoplanets differ from our solar system. The more researchers learn about extrasolar planets, the more our planetary system appears to be “unusual,” though not accidental, in its own right.
Since my earliest memories, science and the Christian faith have featured prominently in my life - but I struggled when my scientific studies seemed to collide with my early biblical training. My first contact with RTB came when I heard Hugh Ross speak at Iowa State University. It was the first time I realized it was possible to do professional work incorporating both my love of science and my desire to serve God. I knew RTB's ministry was something I was called to be a part of.
While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. My passion at RTB is helping Christians see how powerful a tool science is to declare God's glory and helping scientists understand how the established scientific discoveries demonstrate the legitimacy and rationality of the Christian faith.
While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well.
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Jeff Zweerink thought he would follow in his father's footsteps as a chemistry professor until a high school teacher piqued his interest in physics. Jeff pursued a BS in physics and a PhD in astrophysics at Iowa State University (ISU), where he focused his study on gamma rays - messengers from distant black holes and neutron stars.
Upon completing his education, Jeff taught at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Postdoctoral research took him to the West Coast, to the University of California, Riverside, and eventually to a research faculty position at UCLA. He has conducted research using STACEE and VERITAS gamma-ray telescopes, and currently works on GAPS, a balloon experiment seeking to detect dark matter.
A Christian from childhood, Jeff desired to understand how the worlds of science and Scripture integrate. He struggled when his scientific studies seemed to collide with his early biblical training. While an undergrad at ISU, Jeff heard Hugh Ross speak and learned of Reasons to Believe (RTB) and its ministry of reconciliation - tearing down the presumed barriers between science and faith and introducing people to their personal Creator. Jeff knew this was something he was called to be a part of.
Today, as a research scholar at RTB, Jeff speaks at churches, youth groups, universities, and professional groups around the country, encouraging people to consider the truth of Scripture and how it connects with the evidence of science. His involvement with RTB grows from an enthusiasm for helping others bridge the perceived science-faith gap. He seeks to assist others in avoiding the difficulties he experienced.
Jeff is author of Who's Afraid of the Multiverse? and coauthor of more than 30 journal articles, as well as numerous conference proceedings. He still serves part-time on the physics and astronomy research faculty at UCLA. He directs RTB's online learning programs, Reasons Institute and Reasons Academy, and also contributes to the ministry's podcasts and daily blog, Today's New Reason to Believe.
When he isn’t participating in science-faith apologetics Jeff enjoys fishing, camping, and working on home improvement projects. An enthusiastic sports fan, he coaches his children's teams and challenges his RTB colleagues in fantasy football. He roots for the Kansas City Chiefs and for NASCAR's Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, live in Southern California with their five children.