Hunting for exoplanets, scientists have found one of the most fascinating planets to date. A sinister “Super-Earth” that is half molten magma, and half perpetual night.
The planet is named 55 Cancri e. It’s 41 light-years from our planet and was initially discovered in 2004, classified as the first Super-Earth, a planet with a mass larger than ours but smaller than Neptune. Another characteristic of Super-Earths is that they orbit around a main sequence star.
55 Cancri e is located so close to it’s star that it’s orbit speeds by in just 18 years. A rough calculation shows that in one earth year, it orbits it’s host star 487 times. Cancri has an atmosphere that reaches 2,000°C (3,600°F) and is filled with poisonous gases such as cyanide. It goes without saying that you do not want to live here.
What seperates the new research from the initial find in 2004 is new imaging data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope that detects infrared emissions. Thanks to Spitzer, astrophysicist Brice-Olivier Demory was able to tell the story of a world with two drastically different hemispheres.
Thanks in part to the gravity of it’s star, the planet is tidally locked and only one hemisphere faces the star at all times. This is the same reason we only see one side of our moon from Earth. The new data showed that the side facing it’s star reaches up to 2,500°C (4,530°F) and is in a constant state of molten flux. The other half is cast in perpetual night at a cooler, but still remarkable, temperature of 1,100°C (2,010°F).
The cold side is covered with solidified lava, whereas the hotter side is dominated by a frightening magma ocean. And strangely so, the planet is much hotter than it is supposed to be. Data from Spitzer shows that it is not receiving enough heat from it’s host star to reach such temperatures, thus scientists believed that there are unknown forces at work at the heart of the planet.
“We still don’t know exactly what this planet is made of – it’s still a riddle,” says Demory. “These results are like adding another brick to the wall, but the exact nature of this planet is still not completely understood.”
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