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NewsAlert: NASA Infra-Red Probe Reveals Super Earth's Direct Light



NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope was able to detect a super Earth's direct light for the first time using its sensitive heat-seeking infrared vision. While the planet is not habitable, the detection is a historic step toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets. 

Super Earth's are more massive than Earth but lighter than gas giants like Neptune. As the image above shows, in visible light, a planet is lost in the glare of its star (top view). When viewed in infrared, the planet becomes brighter relative to its star. This is largely due to the fact that the planet's scorching heat blazes with infrared light. Even on our own bodies emanate more infrared light than visible due to our heat. 

"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," said Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 

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. 

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, and its sun-facing side is more than 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to melt metal. 

The new information is consistent with a prior theory that 55 Cancri e is a water world: a rocky core surrounded by a layer of water in a "supercritical" state where it is both liquid and gas, and topped 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," said Michaël Gillon of Université de Liège in Belgium, principal investigator of the research, which appears in the Astrophysical Journal. The lead author is Brice-Olivier Demory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The 55 Cancri system is relatively close to Earth, at 41 light-years away. It has five planets, with 55 Cancri e the closest to the star and tidally locked, so one side always faces the star. Spitzer discovered the sun-facing side is extremely hot, indicating the planet probably does not have a substantial atmosphere to carry the sun's heat to the unlit side. 

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, likely will be able to learn even more about the planet's composition. The telescope might be able to use a similar infrared method to Spitzer to search other potentially habitable planets for signs of molecules possibly related to life.

"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." 

In 2005, Spitzer became the first telescope to detect light from a planet beyond our solar system. To the surprise of many, the observatory saw the infrared light of a "hot Jupiter," a gaseous planet much larger than the solid 55 Cancri e. Since then, other telescopes, including NASA's Hubble and Kepler space telescopes, have performed similar feats with gas giants using the same method.

In this method, a telescope gazes at a star as a planet circles behind it. When the planet disappears from view, the light from the star system dips ever so slightly, but enough that astronomers can determine how much light came from the planet itself. This information reveals the temperature of a planet, and, in some cases, its atmospheric components. Most other current planet-hunting methods obtain indirect measurements of a planet by observing its effects on the star.

During Spitzer's ongoing extended mission, steps were taken to enhance its unique ability to see exoplanets, including 55 Cancri e. Those steps, which included changing the cycling of a heater and using an instrument in a new way, led to improvements in how precisely the telescope points at targets. 

The Daily Galaxy via http://spitzer.caltech.edu 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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When pictures such as the one accompanying this article are artist's renderings, they should be clearly labeled as such. How many readers of this article, will walk away thinking that this 'image' is an actual photo of a planet that is 41 light years away. While the article itself only refers to an 'image' and does not claim to be an actual photograph, it may be interpreted as such by a large segment of the general public. This lack of unambiguous disclosure seems to be an increasingly common problem in several scientific fields.

Good one, Rob !

I think people will figure it out Rob lol

Something NOT MENTIONED in the above "news alert is the APPARENT lack of transfer of heat from the eternal (because the planet is tidally locked) dayside to the nightside. If this is true, then a huge "ISLAND" of ice 7 may exist on the side of the planet opposite to its solar point. The water surrounging the island would be superfluid instead of supercritical. Supercritical water would flow over the island, but then turn superfluid and rain down on the island. the rain would turn to ice 7 when the temperature gets below 1500F and the pressure becomes far greater than the pressure at the bottom of challenger deep. The most amazing thing about this scenario is that the JWST may be able to see this island, because it appears that the steam atmosphere is so undense that Spitzer is actually seeing the low albedo supercritical water "ocean" through a transparent steam atmosphere.

I agree Rob....more clarity is never a bad thing.
With this website though...its not claiming to be a scientific representation
and is more of a popsci kind of thing. I would love to see the real data.

It says that the amount of light decreases when the planet goes behind the star as we don't detect the planet's light anymore. However, when the planet is in front of the star, doesn't the amount of star's light reduce as well because the planet is blocking some of the star's light?

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