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.
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The previous studies of 55 Cancri e were performed by analyzing how the light from its parent star changed as the planet passed in front of it, a technique known as the "transit method." In the new study, astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope to determine the infrared light from 55 Cancri e itself.Skip to next paragraph
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Spitzer's new look at 55 Cancri e is consistent with supercritical-fluid waterworld theory. The planet is likely a rocky world covered with water in a supercritical fluid state and topped off with a steam blanket, researchers said.
"It could be very similar to Neptune, if you pulled Neptune in toward our sun and watched its atmosphere boil away," said the study's principal investigator Michaël Gillon of Université de Liège in Belgium. The lead author is Brice-Olivier Demory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The research is detailed in the Astrophysical Journal.
NASA's $770 million Spitzer Space Telescope launched in 2003 and is currently in an extended mission to study the universe in infrared light. During that extended mission, telescope engineers modified several settings on the observatory to optimize its alien planet vision, NASA officials said.
The space agency's next major infrared space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope slated to launch in 2018, could potentially reveal even more details about 55 Cancri e and other similar super-Earth planets.
"When we conceived of Spitzer more than 40 years ago, exoplanets hadn't even been discovered," said Michael Werner, Spitzer project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Because Spitzer was built very well, it's been able to adapt to this new field and make historic advances such as this."
This story was corrected to reflect that tone year on the planet 55 Cancri e lasts just 18 hours, not one day.
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- Alien Super-Earth Goes Supercritical?
- Gallery: The Infrared Universe Seen by Spitzer Telescope