Astronomers are constantly looking for planets that could potentially replace Earth as our home world in case something happens to our big blue marble. The best chance for that is to find a super-Earth class planet, as the mass would be ideal. But not all super-Earths are survivable, as most have the same issues as other planets do, and since they don’t already have life on them, they probably aren’t able to support it. For the first time in history, a team from NASA a super-Earth exoplanet’s atmosphere analyzed by Hubble.
55 Cancri e – not the best place to live
Named so for having a mass bigger than our Earth’s but smaller than the gas giants in our system, super-Earths are exoplanets that could potentially support life. Most of the times they can’t; however, their composition, size and frequency throughout our galaxy makes them suitable candidates.
Some forty light years away from Earth, 55 Cancri e is a super-Earth exoplanet known for its close proximity to our own planet, and ever since the study, for being the first super-Earth to have its atmosphere studied by our scientists.
Based on its radius and mass, 55 Cancri e has an interior that is most likely very rich in carbon, making it even more exotic than scientists previously believed. This by itself is a good indicator that the planet is quite unlikely to be able to sustain Earth life, but there’s more.
The planet orbits dangerously close to its star, 55 Cancri, making a solar year last just 18 hours. This also means that surface temperatures are as high as 3632 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 2000 Celsius.
By using the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, the team managed to ascertain some characteristics of 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere that make it even more inhospitable. For starters, it’s made up mostly of helium and hydrogen gasses, and there were no signs of water vapors anywhere.
Even more outlandish are the traces of hydrogen cyanide, indicating that carbon is also a huge part of the planet’s atmosphere. Moreover, the carbon is definitely far more prevalent in the atmosphere than oxygen is.
This is the first time we’ve gotten any concrete data regarding a super-Earth exoplanet’s atmosphere, making it a huge breakthrough in astrophysics. Now the scientists can get an idea of how that planet evolved, and perhaps expand upon those theories, extrapolating, and reaching accurate conclusions about other similar planets.
Image source: Wikimedia