Astronomers from NASA and ESA have, for the first time, been able to analyse the atmosphere of an exoplanet that is classified as a ‘Super-Earth’. Exoplanet 55 Cancri e, which is located around 40 light-years from Earth was observed by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and found to have a dry atmosphere comprising mainly of hydrogen and helium with no signs of water vapour.
A ‘super-Earth’ is quite simply a solid rocky planet with a greater mass than the Earth and are thought to be one of the most common types of planet in our galaxy. 55 Cancri e is an unusual super-Earth, being held in a very close orbit to its parent star. While this results in years on the exoplanet taking only 18 hours and an utterly inhospitable surface temperature of around 2000 degrees Celsius. This close orbit did allow the astronomers to employ new analysis techniques to examine the planet and gather information as it passes in front of the star.This finding is groundbreaking as it marks the first time that the spectral fingerprints that give away gasses present in the atmosphere have been discovered on a super-Earth.
This finding is groundbreaking as it marks the first time that the spectral fingerprints that give away gasses present in the atmosphere have been discovered on a super-Earth. “This result gives a first insight into the atmosphere of a super-Earth. We now have clues as to what the planet is currently like and how it might have formed and evolved, and this has important implications for 55 Cancri e and other super-Earths,” said Giovanna Tinetti, of University College London.
While 55 Cancri e is certainly not a planet that anyone would want to live on, between extreme heat and a toxic atmosphere, the discovery of some of its features have proven the ability to detect the atmospheric qualities of other planets. It may still be a few years until a new generation of infrared telescopes prove the current discoveries correct, it is exciting that we develop more and more ways to learn about the nature of our neighbours in the universe.
Image credit to NASA