Ground-Based Telescopes Sense Super-Earth and Future Exoplanets

First Posted: Dec 01, 2014 09:53 AM EST

There may be a new technique to remotely sense exoplanets. For the first time, scientists have measured the passing of a super-Earth in front of a bright, nearby sun-like star using a ground-based telescope. The transit of the exoplanet is the shallowest detected from the ground yet, and bodes well for characterizing the many small planets that upcoming space missions are expected to discover.

"Our observations show that we can detect the transits of small planets around sun-like stars using ground-based telescopes," said Ernst de Mooij, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This is especially important because upcoming space missions such as TESS and PLATO should find many small planets around bright stars."

The planet itself is called 55 Cancri e. It's about twice as big and eight times as massive as Earth, and has a period of 18 hours. It's actually the innermost planet of five within its system. Because it's so close to its host star, the planet's dayside temperature reaches over 1,700 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt metal.

"It's remarkable what we can do by pushing the limits of existing telescopes and instruments, despite the complications posed by the Earth's own turbulent atmosphere," said Ray Jayawardhana, the new study's co-author. "Observations like these are paving the way as we strive towards searching for signs of life on alien planets from afar. Remote sensing across tens of light-years isn't easy, but it can be done with the right technique and a bit of ingenuity."

The new study reveals that it's possible to use ground-based telescopes to detect planets, despite the Earth's atmosphere. This could pave the way for future studies and is encouraging for future missions.

The findings are published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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