Exoplanets
An illustration produced by NASA that shows HAT-P-2b, left, and how it appears to cause heartbeat-like pulsations in its host star, HAT-P-2. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Detects Star's 'Heartbeat' Just in Time for Valentine's Day

Feb 14, 2017

It looks like Valentine's Day isn't just limited to Earth — or its solar system.

On Tuesday, NASA announced the discovery of a distant star with a "heartbeat." The space agency observed the heartbeat-like vibrations on the outer shell of a star called HAT-P-2, making the detection with its Spitzer Space Telescope, according to details published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The star is reportedly 370 light-years away, and scientists believe the star's behavior was caused by an exoplanet, dubbed HAT-P-2b, circling it in a tight orbit.

The planet, NASA found, appears to interact with the star every time it makes its closest approach in its orbit, almost as if it's giving the start a "kiss." If this gravitational force is what causes the heartbeat, then these findings could have major implications for how scientists look for and study exoplanets in the future.

"We had intended the observations to provide a detailed look at HAT-P-2b’s atmospheric circulation," Nikole Lewis, co-author and astronomer at Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, said in a statement. "The discovery of the oscillations was unexpected but adds another piece to the puzzle of how this system evolved."

Lewis and her team were surprised to find a relatively small planet like HAT-P-2b could have such an effect on the much-larger star it orbits. But even though the planet's mass is eight times the size of our solar system's largest planet, Jupiter, its host star, HAT-P-2, is approximately 100 times larger than the planet it interacts with, according to the findings.

"Our observations suggest that our understanding of planet-star interactions is incomplete," Julien de Wit, postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, said in the same statement. "There's more to learn from studying stars in systems like this one and listening for the stories they tell through their 'heartbeats.'"

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