First Super-Earth Atmosphere Detected

First Super-Earth Atmosphere Detected

Astronomers have a detected a hydrogen-rich atmosphere around super-Earth 55-Cancri e, once called the "Diamond Planet." It orbits very close to its host star, and has a surface temperature exceeding 1700 C. Illustration. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

55 Cancri-e was once touted as one of the most exotic exo-planets ever discovered. Mass and radius modelling led some astronomers to speculate that its interior could be rich in carbon. And that much carbon crushed together under extreme pressure = diamonds. That’s how it got its nickname “Diamond Planet.”But 55 Cancri-e—now named “Janssen” (Thank you International Astronomical Union!)—is even more exotic with the recent discovery of an atmosphere. A February 7th research paper in the Astrophysical Journal, by a team of European astronomers, reports that Janssen has an atmosphere rich in hydrogen. This makes Janssen the first exo-planet, that we know of, to have an atmosphere.The team used the Wide Field Camera 3 (WDF3) on the Hubble Space Telescope, and a new scanning technique, to gain an understanding of Janssen’s atmosphere. Along with hydrogen, the team also found helium, and potentially, hydrogen cyanide.Given Janssen’s surface temperature of 2000 K (1727 C), and its proximity to its host star, the existence of an atmosphere is surprising. The team suspects that the hydrogen-rich atmosphere is left over from the planet’s formation 8 billion years ago, and is a remnant of the nebula that the planet and star formed from.“Our observations of 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere suggest that the planet has managed to cling on to a significant amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it formed,” said Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at UCL, who helped develop the new scanning technique. “This is a very exciting result because it’s the first time that we have been able to find the spectral fingerprints that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth.”Super-Earths are the most common type of planet in our galaxy, though none exist in our solar system. They are called super-Earths because they have more mass than Earth, but are smaller than the gas giants. A greater understanding of super-Earths should mean a greater understanding of the most common type of planet around.“This result gives a first insight into the atmosphere of a super-Earth. We now have clues as to what the planet is currently like, how it might have formed and evolved, and this has important implications for 55 Cancri e and other super-Earths,” said Professor Giovanna Tinetti of UCL.The existence of hydrogen cyanide in Janssen’s atmosphere is also significant. Its presence indicates a carbon-rich atmosphere. This supports the idea that Janssen is a diamond planet, though that conclusion is still far from certain. “If the presence of hydrogen cyanide and other molecules is confirmed in a few years time by the next generation of infrared telescopes, it would support the theory that this planet is indeed carbon rich and a very exotic place,” said Professor Jonathan Tennyson, UCL.The team has used their new technique on 2 other super-Earths, but no atmosphere was found.55-Cancri e is about 40 light years from Earth. Its host star is slightly smaller, cooler, and a little dimmer than our Sun, and its year is shorter than an Earth day.  

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