European scientists have successfully carried out a detailed analysis of the atmosphere of an exoplanet that is more than eight times more massive than the planet Earth.
In a study featured in the Astrophysical Journal, research from the University College London (UCL) and other scientific organizations described how they were able to detect spectral fingerprints of gases present in the atmosphere of 55 Cancri e.
55 Cancri e is a super-Earth located in a solar system in the Cancer constellation around 40 light-years from our own planet. It has been given the nickname "diamond planet" because astronomers have long believed that its interior is rich in carbon.
55 Cancri e
To find out more about this massive exoplanet, UCL scientist Angelos Tsiaras and his colleagues Marco Rocchetto and Ingo Waldmann developed a revolutionary way to process data collected through the Hubble Space Telescope.
Using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), the researchers scanned 55 Cancri e's host star in order to create several spectra of that part of space. They then processed their observations using computer software to produce spectral fingerprints of the exoplanet that are embedded in starlight.
Study co-author Professor Giovanna Tinetti of UCL said that this new technique allowed them to take a closer look of the atmosphere surrounding 55 Cancri e. They now have information as to what the super-Earth is like and how it was able to form and evolve.
Hydrogen Cyanide In The Atmosphere
One intriguing aspect of the study is the detection of hydrogen cyanide traces in 55 Cancri e's atmosphere. This suggests that the planet's surface could likely contain high amounts of carbon.
Olivia Venot of the University of Leuven in Belgium, who created an atmospheric chemical model of the exoplanet to help analyze the researchers' observations, explained that such high levels of hydrogen cyanide could prove that carbon to oxygen ration in 55 Cancri e is quite high.
UCL researcher Jonathan Tennyson said that if they are able to confirm the presence of hydrogen cyanide as well as other molecules in 55 Cancri e's atmosphere, it could further the idea that the exoplanet is indeed rich in carbon.
However, this would also mean that 55 Cancri e is not a habitable planet since hydrogen cyanide is known to be a highly poisonous substance, according to Tennyson.