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Super-Earth's Atmosphere Has Been Detected - It's Dry, Hot And Poisonous

First Posted: Feb 17, 2016 03:03 PM EST

Astronomers have finally analyzed the atmosphere of a nearby exoplanet "55 Cancri e," which is also known as a super-Earth. The study found that exoplanet 55 Cancri e has a dry atmosphere and it does not have any signs of water vapor. However, findings did indicate that the planet's atmosphere is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium.

Exoplanet 55 Cancri e is found in the planetary system of 55 Cancri, a star that is about 40 light-years from Earth. The researchers carried out their observations with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The team found that 55 Cancri e has a mass of about eight Earth-masses.

"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," Angelos Tsiaras, coauthor of the study, said in a news release. "The 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 originally formed."

The researchers noted that super-Earths such as 55 Cancri e are the most common types of planets found in our galaxy. These planets are called super-Earths since their mass is greater than the Earth's, but they are smaller than the gas giants within our Solar System. The findings indicated that 55 Cancri e orbits quite close to its parent star. A year on this planet lasts for about 18 hours, while temperatures reach up to 2,000 degrees Celsius. The researchers also noticed the presence of hydrogen cyanide on 55 Cancri e.

"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 Jonathan Tennyson, one of the researchers. "Although hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid, is highly poisonous, so it is perhaps not a planet I would like to live on!"

The findings of this study will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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