Monday, August 31, 2009

Wrong Way Planet

Scientists have discovered that WASP-17 is orbiting its star in the opposite direction (retrograde) of its star's spin. Most planets orbit their stars in the same direction of their star's spin. WASP-17 must have had a violent past, such as a near collision early in its life, for it to be in a retrograde orbit. Because of this violent past, it does not have a circular orbit.

This got me to wondering - if, in this possibly infinite universe, there exists a life harboring planet that orbits its star in the wrong direction, and by an extremely rare stroke of luck, orbits its star in a nearly circular orbit (eccentric orbits are not as conducive to life). Would the sentient species that arises, seeing that their planet orbits in the opposite direction from all the other planets in their star system (and later, they discover, around other star systems as well), think that this is a sign that they are special above all others? When they later find life on other planets, and find that those planets orbit with their star, would they think them inferior, or infidels?

Of course maybe they would reason differently than humans. Maybe they would think the opposite. Or have little emotions and thus not really moved one way or the other, other than curiosity as to why their planet is different.

By they way, the planet gets its name for the SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) program, not because it is a planet inhabited by hymenopterans, or by white Anglo-Saxon protestants...


Alexander, Amir. "Scientists Detect 'Wrong-Way' Planet." Planetary News. The Planetary Society. 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 31 Aug. 2009. <>

"SuperWASP Homepage." SuperWASP - Wide Angle Search for Planets. 3 June 2009. Web 31 Aug. 2009. <>

Image credit: ESA/C. Carreau

1 comment:

Martin J Sallberg said...

In other words, you think they would reason just like Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee did in "Rare Earth". By the way, there is ways for intelligent life on eccentric planets. Oceans can buffer lots of temperature shifts. There is also another way deep oceans can help. Seen pictures of animals in vent communities, including a crab calmly standing and eating in a stream of 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit) hot pressurized water? No life are supposed to survive such extreme heat, but there is also studies of biomolecules in deep-sea animals showing that their molecules are extremely pressure-resilient (some species of flat-fish flourish deeper than 11000 meters while human divers with heliox gas get damaged molecules by pressure in the liver at 350 meters). And since the reason why heat destroys molecules is that it makes molecules collide hard, and pressure destroys molecules by pressing them against each other, all deep-sea life is preadapted to tolerate many hundreds of degrees. It probably also means more resilience to strikes and some forms of radiation. I think tardigrades are so resilient simply because they are descended from deep-sea ancestors (their resilience may even have decreased during millions of years of surface life). This means pressure-resilient life from the abyss would all be facultative (patently not obligate) super-ultrathermophiles (experiments show it is possible to construct modified biomolecules capable of withstanding 1100 degrees Celsius, that is 2012 degrees Fahrenheit). Of course a very massive atmosphere would have the same effect.