Scientists detect light oozing from ‘super Earth’ planet

9 May 2012

Artist's concept of the 55 Cancri e planet that coasts around its star every 18 hours. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope are claiming to have detected light arising from a ‘super Earth’ planet called 55 Cancri e that exists beyond our solar system.

The planet, termed as 55 Cancri e, has been placed into a category of planets that NASA calls ‘Super Earths’. Apparently these planets are massive in size compared to planet Earth but smaller than giants such as Neptune.

55 Cancri e orbits its star in a mere 18 hours

As for 55 Cancri e, which Spitzer detected light emanating from, the space agency says it is about twice as big and eight times as massive as Earth. It orbits a bright star, called 55 Cancri, in just 18 hours.

It said Spitzer was able to see the light of the planet by watching it slip behind its star. The exact term for this movement is an occultation.

While the scientists say the planet is not habitable, they’re claiming its detection is a “historic step” toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets.

According to NASA, the planet is likely dark, with its sun-facing side blisteringly hot at more than 2,000 Kelvin (3,140°F) – a temperature that can melt metal.

Michaël Gillon of Université de Liège in Belgium was the principal investigator of the research, which appears in the Astrophysical Journal.

“It could be very similar to Neptune, if you pulled Neptune in toward our sun and watched its atmosphere boil away,” said Gillon.

41 light years away from Earth

NASA has already posited the theory that 55 Cancri e is a water world. Now it is saying the 55 Cancri system is quite close to Earth, at 41 light years away.

Apparently it has five planets, with 55 Cancri e the closest to the star and tidally locked, so one side always faces the star.

NASA believes there are about 70 known super Earths that circle stars beyond our sun.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic