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Continuous reorientation of synchronous terrestrial planets due to mantle convection

Nature Geosciencevolume 11pages168172 (2018) | Download Citation


Many known rocky exoplanets are thought to have been spun down by tidal interactions to a state of synchronous rotation, in which a planet’s period of rotation is equal to that of its orbit around its host star. Investigations into atmospheric and surface processes occurring on such exoplanets thus commonly assume that day and night sides are fixed with respect to the surface over geological timescales. Here we use an analytical model to show that true polar wander—where a planetary body’s spin axis shifts relative to its surface because of changes in mass distribution—can continuously reorient a synchronous rocky exoplanet. As occurs on Earth, we find that even weak mantle convection in a rocky exoplanet can produce density heterogeneities within the mantle sufficient to reorient the planet. Moreover, we show that this reorientation is made very efficient by the slower rotation rate of a synchronous planet when compared with Earth, which limits the stabilizing effect of rotational and tidal deformations. Furthermore, a relatively weak lithosphere limits its ability to support remnant loads and stabilize against reorientation. Although uncertainties exist regarding the mantle and lithospheric evolution of these worlds, we suggest that the axes of smallest and largest moment of inertia of synchronous exoplanets with active mantle convection change continuously over time, but remain closely aligned with the star–planet and orbital axes, respectively.

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This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679030/WHIPLASH). The author thanks E. Couderc, R. Jolivet, L. Londeix and F. Selsis for comments on the initial manuscript.

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  1. Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Bordeaux, University of Bordeaux, CNRS, Pessac, France

    • Jérémy Leconte


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Correspondence to Jérémy Leconte.

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