Rocky Alien Planets: What The Heck Is On Their Surfaces?

by Elizabeth Howell on May 25, 2013

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NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

In 2011, NASA’s Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it was then the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

We don’t have the budget yet to send Star Trek‘s U.S.S. Enterprise to probe the surface of strange new worlds, but luckily for humanity, astronomers are figuring out techniques to do that without even needing to leave Earth.

One of Earth’s prolific planet-hunters, the Kepler Space Telescope, has found a lot of planet candidates with rocky surfaces. That’s exciting for astronomers, as rocky planets tend to be smaller than their gas giant counterparts. Also, learning more about rocky planets could give us more clues as to Earth’s history, and that of other planets in our solar system.

But how the heck, from so far away, can we begin to understand the surface? One idea: Check the heat signature, or in more scientific words, look at exoplanets in the infrared part of the light spectrum.

The visible colors, infrared, radio, X-rays and gamma rays are all forms of light and comprise the electromagnetic spectrum. Here you can compare their wavelengths with familiar objects and see how their frequencies (bottom numbers) increase with decreasing wavelength. Credit: ESA

The visible colors, infrared, radio, X-rays and gamma rays are all forms of light and comprise the electromagnetic spectrum. Here you can compare their wavelengths with familiar objects and see how their frequencies (bottom numbers) increase with decreasing wavelength. Credit: ESA

NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine recently published an article about this method, which we encourage you to check out. In summary, the team behind a new research paper (submitted to the Astrophysical Journal) proposes to check out “airless” exoplanets that have surface temperatures below 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (1,726 Celsius or 2,000 Kelvin.)

Because different kinds of rocks emit “signature” spectrums in different wavelengths, it’s possible we could pick up the signs of silicate rocks or other types of material. There’s a caveat, though.

“With current technology, however, the team cautions that determining surface composition of exoplanets is a very different process than studying their solar system counterparts,” the magazine wrote. “Due to the limits of technology, the team proposes to concentrate on the most prominent mineral signatures detected from exoplanets.”

Check out more details in the scientific journal article here, or the entire Astrobiology Magazine article at this link.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Friv 2 May 25, 2013 at 4:00 PM

It is so awesome. I have just had some questions like this. It help me a lot

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