NASA’s Spitzer Sees Light of Alien “Super-Earth”
May 16, 2012
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected light emanating from a “super-Earth” planet beyond the solar system for the first time. While the planet is not habitable, the detection is a historic step toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets.
“Spitzer has amazed us yet again,” said Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington. “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, called 55 Cancri e, falls into a class of planets termed super-Earths, which are more massive than our home world but lighter than giant planets like Neptune. The planet is about twice as big and eight times as massive as Earth. It orbits a bright star, called 55 Cancri, in a mere 18 hours. The artist's conception above shows the planet in orbit.
Previously, Spitzer and other telescopes were able to study the planet by analyzing how the light from 55 Cancri changed as the planet passed in front of the star. In the new study, Spitzer measured how much infrared light comes from the planet itself. The results reveal the planet is likely dark in appearance, and its sun-facing side is more than 2,000 Kelvin (1,727 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt metal.
For more on the search for alien planets, see the NASA press release.
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)