NASA said today that its Kepler space telescope has identified a "weird, wobbly" planet that spins wildly on its axis like a child's top.
The newly-discovered planet, which is being called Kepler-413b, has a spin axis that was found to vary by up to 30 degrees over 11 years. That means that the planet, which is in the constellation Cygnus and located 2,300 light years away, goes through extreme variations in its cycle of seasons. NASA pointed out that Earth's "rotational precession" is a mere 23.5 degrees over 26,000 years.
Every 66 days, Kepler 413-b rotates around a pair of red and orange dwarf stars, and even that orbit seems to wobble, NASA said, thanks to the fact that the plane of the orbit "is tilted 2.5 degrees with respect to the plane of the star pair's orbit." That means that someone watching from Earth would observe the orbit going up and down continuously.
The Kepler telescope was designed to find new planets, in large part by recognizing how stars dim when a planet transits, or travels, in front of them. NASA explained that most planets transit smoothly and consistently. But Kepler-413b, by comparison, showed a very irregular transiting pattern. According to Veselin Kostov, the principal investigator on the Kepler-413b observation, scientists studied 1,500 days of Kepler data and saw bizarre transiting patterns. In the first 180 days, there were three transits, but then the planet went 800 days without any. Then there were five in quick succession.
NASA said the scientists are unsure why Kepler-413b is out of alignment with its stars. Some say it could be attributable to other planetary bodies in the area that affected the orbit, while others posit that a third star in the region could be "gravitationally bound to the system and exerting an influence."
Regardless, NASA added, Kepler-413b isn't suitable for life -- at least not as we know it -- because it orbit close to its stars make it too hot to sustain liquid water. It's also a type of planet known as a "super Neptune," meaning it has no surface on which to stand thanks to being a giant gas planet with a mass 65 times greater than Earth's.