Astronomers discovered 55 Cancri e in 2004. That was five years before NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft was launched, and exoplanet science has come a long way in the intervening years. Astronomers discovered the planet with the radial velocity method rather than Kepler’s transit method. 55 Cancri e was the first super-Earth found around a main-sequence star. The 55 Cancri system was also the first star discovered with four, and then five, planets.
The discovery was big news then; over the years, follow-up work has revealed more details, including that 55 Cancri e is extremely close to its star and has a molten surface.
But one question remained unanswered: How did it get there?
In the past decade and a half, a total of 4,164 thousand planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System, while another 5220 await confirmation. The majority of these were detected by the venerable Kepler Space Telescope, while the remainder have been observed by the Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite(TESS) and a combination of other satellites and ground-based telescopes.
But in what is a new record, a known super-Earth was recently observed by the Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics (ASTERIA) small satellite – making it the smallest observatory to spot an exoplanet. Led by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this mission has demonstrated that small satellites can perform complex tasks in space normally carried out by large observatories.
The super-Earth 55 Cancri e (aka. Janssen) is somewhat famous, as exoplanet go. Originally discovered in 2004, this world was one of the few whose discovery predated the Kepler mission. By 2016, it was also the first exoplanet to have its atmosphere successfully characterized. Over the years, several studies have been conducted on this planet that revealed some rather interesting things about its composition and structure.
For example, scientists believed at one time that 55 Cancri e was a “diamond planet“, whereas more recent work based on data from the Spitzer Space Telescope concluded that its surface was covered in lakes of hot lava. However, a new study conducted by scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory indicates that despite its intense surface heat, 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere that is comparable to Earth’s, only much hotter!
The study, titled “A Case for an Atmosphere on Super-Earth 55 Cancri e“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. Led by Isabel Angelo (a physics major with UC Berkeley) with the assistance of Renyu Hu – a astronomer and Hubble Fellow with JPL and Caltech – the pair conducted a more detailed analysis of the Spitzer data to determine the likelihood and composition of an atmosphere around 55 Cancri e.
Previous studies of the planet noted that this super-Earth (which is twice as large as our planet), orbits very close to its star. As a result, it has a very short orbital period of about 17 hours and 40 minutes and is tidally locked (with one side constantly facing towards the star). Between June and July of 2013, Spitzer observed 55 Cancri e and obtained temperature data using its special infrared camera.
Initially, the temperature data was seen as being an indication that large deposits of lava existed on the surface. However, after re-analyzing this data and combining it with a new model previously develop by Hu, the team began to doubt this explanation. According to their findings, the planet must have a thick atmosphere, since lava lakes exposed to space would create hots spots of high temperatures.
What’s more, they also noted that the temperature differences between the day and night side were not as significant as previously thought – another indication of an atmosphere. By comparing changes in the planet’s brightness to energy flow models, the team concluded that an atmosphere with volatile materials was the best explanation for the high temperatures. As Renyu Hu explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“If there is lava on this planet, it would need to cover the entire surface. But the lava would be hidden from our view by the thick atmosphere. Scientists have been debating whether this planet has an atmosphere like Earth and Venus, or just a rocky core and no atmosphere, like Mercury. The case for an atmosphere is now stronger than ever.”
Using Hu’s improved model of how heat would flow throughout the planet and radiate back into space, they found that temperatures on the day side would average about 2573 K (2,300 °C; 4,200 °F). Meanwhile, temperatures on the “cold” side would average about 1573 – 1673 K (1,300 – 1,400 °C; 2,400 – to 2,600 °F). If the planet had no atmosphere, the differences in temperature would be far more extreme.
As for the composition of this atmosphere, Angelo and Hu revealed that it is likely similar to Earth’s – containing nitrogen, water and even oxygen. While much hotter, the atmospheric density also appeared to be similar to that of Earth, which suggests the planet is most likely rocky (aka. terrestrial) in composition. On the downside, the temperatures are far too hot for the surface to maintain liquid water, which makes habitability a non-starter.
Ultimately, this study was made possible thanks to Hu’s development of a method that makes the study exoplanet atmospheres and surfaces easier. Angelo, who led the study, worked on it as part of her internship with JPL and adapted Hu’s model to 55 Cancri e. Previously, this model had only been applied to mass gas giants that orbit close to their respective suns (aka. “Hot Jupiters”).
Naturally, there are unresolved questions that this study helps to raise, such as how 55 Cancri e has avoided losing its atmosphere to space. Given how close the planet orbits to its star, and the fact that it’s tidally locked, it would be subject to intense amounts of radiation. Further studies may help to reveal how this is the case, and will help advance our understanding of large, rocky planets.
The application of this model to a Super-Earth is the perfect example of how exoplanet research has been evolving in recent years. Initially, scientists were restricted to studying gas giants that orbit close to their stars (as well as their respective atmospheres) since these are the easiest to spot and characterize. But thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methods, the range of planets we are capable of studying is growing.
A precious planet? Don’t think so fast, a new study says. The so-called “diamond super-Earth“, 55 Cancri e, may actually have a different composition than initially expected.
The team examined previous observations of the system, which is 40 light years from Earth, and said that there is less carbon (or what diamonds are made of) than oxygen in the planet’s star.
“In theory, 55 Cancri e could still have a high carbon to oxygen ratio and be a diamond planet, but the host star does not have such a high ratio,” stated University of Arizona astronomy graduate student Johanna Teske, who led the study.
“So in terms of the two building blocks of information used for the initial ‘diamond-planet’ proposal – the measurements of the exoplanet and the measurements of the star – the measurements of the star no longer verify that.”
The difficulty is it’s not so easy to send a spacecraft to a planet that is so far away from us, so we can’t do any close-up observations of it. This means that astronomers rely on methods such as absorption spectra (looking at what chemical elements absorb light at different wavelengths) of a star to see what it is made of.
The astronomers said there had been only a single oxygen line found in the last study, and they feel that 55 Cancri is cooler than the sun and has more metals into it. This conclusion would imply that the amount of oxygen in the star “is more prone to error.”
There are, however, a lot of moving pieces to this study. How do you know if a planet and star have similar compositions? How to accurately model a planet that you can’t see very well with conventional telescopes? How to best measure chemical abundances from afar? Teske acknowledged in a statement that her work may not be the definitive answer on this planet, so it will be interesting to see what comes out next.