Image 1 - Light Of Alien 'Super-Earth' Detected By Spitzer
May 8, 2012

Light Of Alien ‘Super-Earth’ Detected By Spitzer

Lee Rannals for

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Light from a "super-Earth" planet that lies beyond our solar system has been detected for the first time by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

NASA said that although the planet, 55 Cancri e, is not habitable, meaning it is unable to support life, the detection is a monumental step towards searching for signs of life on other planets.

"Spitzer has amazed us yet again," Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a press release. "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."

The planet falls into a class of planets deemed "super Earths," which are more massive than our planet, but lighter than giant planets like Neptune.

The planet is about twice as big and eight times as massive as Earth, according to a NASA press release.  The space agency said that it orbits the star 55 Cancri in about 18 hours.

NASA's Spitzer was able to help study the planet by analyzing how light from 55 Cancri changed as 55 Cancri e passed in front of it.  Spitzer helped measure how much infrared light comes from the planet itself, which revealed that the planet is likely dark, and its sun-facing side is over 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit.

The discovery coincides with a theory that 55 Cacri e is a water world, which is a planet with a rocky core surrounded by a layer of water in a "supercritical" state.  In this state, both liquid and gas are covered by a blanket of steam.

"It could be very similar to Neptune, if you pulled Neptune in toward our sun and watched its atmosphere boil away," Michaël Gillon of Université de Liège in Belgium, principal investigator of the research, said in a press release.

The planet's system is 41 light-years away from Earth, and consists of 5 planets, with 55 Cancri e lying the closest to the star.

NASA said the sun-facing side of the planet is extremely dark, which indicates the planet probably does not have a substantial atmosphere to carry the sun's heat to the unlit side.

NASA's James Webb Telescope will be able to help unveil some more information about the planet's composition after it is launched in 2018.

"When we conceived of Spitzer more than 40 years ago, exoplanets hadn't even been discovered," Michael Werner, Spitzer project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a press release. "Because Spitzer was built very well, it's been able to adapt to this new field and make historic advances such as this."

Spitzer became the first telescope to detect light from a planet beyond our solar system back in 2005, helping astronomers find the infrared light of a "hot Jupiter."  Since then, NASA's Hubble and Kepler space telescopes have performed similar feats by finding gas giants using the same method.


Image 2 (below): This plot of data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals the light from a "super Earth" called 55 Cancri e. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT