It’d be rather unsettling to sit down with a cup of coffee one morning, and learn from astro-ph that the orbital period of Mars is not 1.88 years as is widely believed, but is rather a mere 7.83 months.
Last week, Rebekah Dawson and Dan Fabrycky posted a paper that gave me an equivalent jolt, and which has likely touched off a certain uproar within the planet-hunting community. Their claim is that the periods of a number of A-list planets, including 55 Cnc e and HD 156668 b are in fact aliases, and that the true periods of these worlds are startlingly different. Dawson and Fabrycky argue that the true period of 55 Cnc e is a fleet 0.7365 days (revised from 2.817d), and that HD 156668b orbits with a period of 1.2699 days rather than the published value of 4.6455d. Other well-known worlds may well be in line for a similar treatment.
Sometimes, things seem very clear in retrospect. In the graph just below, I’ve plotted the reflex velocity curves for two planets. One has a period of 1.61803 days, the other has a a period of 2.61803 days. If one happens to observe only at the times when the curves intersect, then it’s clear that there’s no way to tell them apart.
In the particular case above, the intersections of the sinusoids are separated by exactly one day. If the true period of the system is 1.61803 days, then we would say that the 2.61803 day period is an alias produced by the 1-day observing frequency. In general, for an observing frequency, f_o, and a true period, f_t, aliases exist at frequencies f=f_t+m*f_o, where m is an integer.
Aliases are a problem in Doppler surveys because observations are most efficiently done when the star is crossing the meridian, leading to a natural spacing of one sidereal day (23h 56m) between data points. Further periodicities in data-taking arise because RV survey time is usually granted during “bright” time when the Moon is up, and as a consequence of the yearly observing season for non-circumpolar stars. Aliases are minimized when observations are taken randomly, but the nuts and bolts of the celestial cycles impose regularity on the timestamps.
In reducing the period of 55 Cnc e to a sizzling 17.7 hours, the probability that the planet transits is raised to a very respectable 25%. Seems to me like rolling the dice with a few hours of Warm Spitzer time might be in order.