Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Light from alien 'super-earth' seen for first time

NASA's Spitzer space telescope has detected a light source coming from a large earth-like planet.

By Tariq MalikSpace.com / May 9, 2012

This artist's concept shows the super-Earth planet 55 Cancri e. It's a toasty world 41 light-years from Earth that rushes around its star every 18 hours.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Enlarge

Light from an alien "super-Earth" twice the size of our own Earth has been detected by a NASA space telescope for the first time in what astronomers are calling a historic achievement.

Skip to next paragraph

NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope spotted light from the alien planet 55 Cancri e, which orbits a star 41 light-years from Earth. A year on the extrasolar planet lasts just 18 hours.

The planet 55 Cancri e was first discovered in 2004 and is not a habitable world. Instead, it is known as a super-Earth because of its size: The world is about twice the width of Earth and is super-dense, with about eight times the mass of Earth.

IN PICTURES: Exoplanets

But until now, scientists have never managed to detect the infrared light from the super-Earth world.

"Spitzer has amazed us yet again," said Spitzer program scientist Bill Danch of NASA headquarters in Washington in a statement today (May 8). "The spacecraft is pioneering the study of atmospheres of distant planets and paving the way for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to apply a similar technique on potentially habitable planets."

Spitzer first detected infrared light from an alien planet in 2005. But that world was "hot Jupiter," a gas giant planet much larger than 55 Cancri e that orbited extremely close to its parent star. While other telescopes have performed similar feats since then, Spitzer's view of the 55 Cancri e is the first time the light from a rocky super-Earth type planet has been seen, researchers said.

Since the discovery of 55 Cancri e, astronomers have pinned down increasingly strange features about the planet. The researchers already knew it was part of an alien solar system containing five exoplanets centered on the star 55 Cancri in the constellation Cancer (The Crab). [Gallery: The Oozing Planet 55 Cancri e]

But 55 Cancri e stood out because it is ultra-dense and orbits extremely close to its parent star; about 26 times closer than the distance between Mercury and our own sun.

The new Spitzer observations revealed that the star-facing side of 55 Cancri e is extremely hot, with temperatures reaching up to 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (1,726 degrees Celsius). The planet is likely a dark world that lacks the substantial atmosphere needed to warm its nighttime side, researchers said.

And to top it all off, the planet is oozing.

Past observations of the planet by the Spitzer Space Telescope have suggested that one-fifth of 55 Cancri e is made up of lighter elements, including water. But the extreme temperatures and pressures on 55 Cancri e would create what scientists call a "supercritical fluid" state.

Supercritical fluids can be imagined as a gas in a liquid state, which can occur under extreme pressures and temperatures. On Earth, water can become a supercritical fluid inside some steam engines.

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer

 

Doing Good

 

What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!