On turbulence driven by axial precession and tidal evolution of the spin–orbit angle of close-in giant planets
The spin axis of a rotationally deformed planet is forced to precess about its orbital angular momentum vector, due to the tidal gravity of its host star, if these directions are misaligned. This induces internal fluid motions inside the planet that are subject to a hydrodynamic instability. We study the turbulent damping of precessional fluid motions, as a result of this instability, in the simplest local computational model of a giant planet (or star), with and without a weak internal magnetic field. Our aim is to determine the outcome of this instability, and its importance in driving tidal evolution of the spin–orbit angle in precessing planets (and stars). We find that this instability produces turbulent dissipation that is sufficiently strong that it could drive significant tidal evolution of the spin–orbit angle for hot Jupiters with orbital periods shorter than about 10–18 days. If this mechanism acts in isolation, this evolution would be towards alignment or anti-alignment, depending on the initial angle, but the ultimate evolution (if other tidal mechanisms also contribute) is expected to be towards alignment. The turbulent dissipation is proportional to the cube of the precession frequency, so it leads to much slower damping of stellar spin–orbit angles, implying that this instability is unlikely to drive evolution of the spin–orbit angle in stars (either in planetary or close binary systems). We also find that the instability-driven flow can act as a system-scale dynamo, which may play a role in producing magnetic fields in short-period planets.