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November 15 2012

Did a Lost Star Torque Earth's Orbit?

One young star may yank another's developing solar system, a new theory suggests, accounting for planets that circle their stars on tilted paths. This idea may also explain a long-standing puzzle close to home: why Earth's orbit is tipped 7° relative to the sun's equator.

In 1995, Swiss astronomers made the shocking discovery of the first "hot Jupiter," a gas giant circling close to its star. To explain the odd find, theorists proposed that the planet formed far from its star but then migrated closer, spiraling through the protoplanetary disk of gas and dust that once swirled around its sun. During this so-called disk migration, the planet remained in the disk, and so the tilt of its orbit matched that of its star.

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