"Water-World" Discovered Only 41 Light Years From Earth
June 8, 2012 12:38 PM
55 Cancri e (artist depiction)
"Superearth" is a bit toasty with a sun-facing temperature of 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit)
Affixed in an 18-hour tidally locked orbit, 55 Cancri e is a
bit like Earth
, although in many ways altogether alien.
I. An Extreme Superearth
is located in a system with at least 5 planets just 41 light years from Earth. The tidal-locking means that its orbit takes the same amount of time that it takes to rotate on its axis -- hence the same "side" of the planet is always facing the Sun. If Earth were tidally locked (which it is not), a particular side (say North and South America) would enjoy 24-hour days, while the opposite side (Asia) would be cloaked in perpetual darkness.
This raises some interesting possibilities for 55 Cancri e. Based on new infrared light data collected from
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope
, scientists have developed new insight into the alien world's climate. Cancri e's sun-facing side is a scorching 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit), with water existing in a super-critical state where it is found in localized, ever-shifting pockets of liquid and gas, topped with a thick blanket of steam. But the night side is likely cool and liquid.
The blazing heat from the 55 Cancri star means there is likely no atmosphere, since it would long ago have burned away. No atmosphere means that there would be no substantial heat transfer to the far reaches of the night side, making it almost as cold as the other side is hot. But betwixt the icy night side and the blistering supercritical day side, there could be a region in which water is almost at Earth-like temperatures, warmed by conductive currents from the day-side.
Such a region of the water-world could support life, in theory, or be colonizable, although NASA concludes that most of the planet's icy or blazing surface is generally "not habitable".
Scientists hypothesize that a rocky core may lie deep between the deep-water sea. Such a core could provide basic mineral resources to organisms or human colonists.
II. Planet to be Further Examined in 2018
While the Spitzer telescope has been on the planetary hunt since 2005, 55 Cancri e is its first "superearth" discovery. "Superearth" refers to a recently discovered class of planets that shares some similarities to our own. The planets are generally more massive than Earth, but lighter than lesser gas giants like Neptune. 55 Cancri e is about twice the radius of Earth and about eight times as massive.
Infrared readings provide valuable clues to the composition (and cllimate) of 55 Cancri e.
[Image Source: NASA]
The foreign world will be further probed by the
NASA James Webb Space Telescope
, which will launch in 2018. The James Webb Telescope will be equipped with more advanced spectral sensors capable of examining the exact chemical compositions of superearth planets like 55 Cancri e, probing them for fundamental life necessities like carbon. The James Webb Telescope was originally scheduled for a 2013 launch, and
narrowly avoided being scrapped in 2011
due to budgetary concerns.
Skeptics long argued that our solar system was unique and that other stars lacked planets. Such claims have been dashed by modern science, which have shown that many stars -- even those close to Earth have numerous planets, indicating our solar system is more of an observance of cosmic rules, rather than a fortuitous fluke. Likewise, while many argue that life does not exist on alien worlds, many researchers believe that science will soon prove otherwise.
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