Exoplanet 55 Cancri e has been examined, revealing atmospheric conditions on an alien world for the first time ever. This study could open up new techniques in the search for life on other planets.
The Spitzer space telescope, in space since 2003, was used to take infrared photographs of the distant scorching world.
"This is the first time we've seen such drastic changes in light emitted from an exoplanet, which is particularly remarkable for a super Earth. No signature of thermal emissions or surface activity has ever been detected for any other super Earth to date," Nikku Madhusudhan from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University said.
University of Cambridge astronomers examined a large, rocky exoplanet around 40 light years from our own solar system, located in the constellation of Cancer. They found extreme variations in temperature, between 1,800 and 4,900 degrees Fahrenheit, over the course of two years.
"Although the cause of the variability is unknown, immense amounts of volcanic activity on the rocky surface could be driving the changes," researchers said.
If researchers are correct in their initial theories about the world, and vulcanism is the driving cause behind the massive temperature swings, then 55 Cancri e likely exhibits a far more active volcanic system than Jupiter's moon Io, the most geologically active body in the solar system. Hot lava could be generating heat, while the release of vast quantities of gas and dust cool the planet.
Super-Earths are exoplanets with masses between that of our own world and 10 times that amount. In this case, 55 Cancri e has roughly eight times the mass of the Earth, encompassed in a planet with twice the diameter of our own world. This planet orbits so close to its sun that it completes an entire year in just 18 hours. It is also tidally locked to its parent star, always presenting one face to the stellar body as the moon does with the Earth. It is the innermost of five known planets in the 55 Cancri system.
Exoplanet 55 Cancri e is traditionally believed to be carbon-rich, possibly covered in vast oceans of hydrocarbons, placing the alien world into a class known as diamond planets. However, new findings suggest the globe may contain less carbon than once theorized. The extreme temperature swings suggest the planet may possess a geological system never before encountered by astronomers.
The ability to measure conditions in the atmospheres and on the surfaces of exoplanets could assist astronomers with identifying worlds where alien life could exist.
Measurements of atmospheric conditions on the nearby exoplanet was detailed in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.