Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

First Detection of Super-Earth Atmosphere

17.02.2016

For the first time astronomers were able to analyse the atmosphere of an exoplanet in the class known as super-Earths. Using data gathered with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and new analysis techniques, the exoplanet 55 Cancri e is revealed to have a dry atmosphere without any indications of water vapour. The results, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, indicate that the atmosphere consists mainly of hydrogen and helium.

The international team, led by scientists from University College London (UCL) in the UK, took observations of the nearby exoplanet 55 Cancri e, a super-Earth with a mass of eight Earth-masses [1]. It is located in the planetary system of 55 Cancri, a star about 40 light-years from Earth.


Transit of 55 Cancri e

Using observations made with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the scientists were able to analyse the atmosphere of this exoplanet. This makes it the first detection of gases in the atmosphere of a super-Earth.

The results allowed the team to examine the atmosphere of 55 Cancri e in detail and revealed the presence of hydrogen and helium, but no water vapour. These results were only made possible by exploiting a newly-developed processing 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,” explains Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at UCL, who developed the analysis technique along with his colleagues Ingo Waldmann and Marco Rocchetto. “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.”

Super-Earths like 55 Cancri e are thought to be the most common type of planet in our galaxy. They acquired the name ‘super-Earth’ because they have a mass larger than that of the Earth but are still much smaller than the gas giants in the Solar System. The WFC3 instrument on Hubble has already been used to probe the atmospheres of two other super-Earths, but no spectral features were found in those previous studies [2].

55 Cancri e, however, is an unusual super-Earth as it orbits very close to its parent star. A year on the exoplanet lasts for only 18 hours and temperatures on the surface are thought to reach around 2000 degrees Celsius. Because the exoplanet is orbiting its bright parent star at such a small distance, the team was able to use new analysis techniques to extract information about the planet, during its transits in front of the host star.

Observations were made by scanning the WFC3 very quickly across the star to create a number of spectra. By combining these observations and processing them through analytic software, the researchers were able to retrieve the spectrum of 55 Cancri e embedded in the light of its parent star.

“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 and how it might have formed and evolved, and this has important implications for 55 Cancri e and other super-Earths,” said Giovanna Tinetti, also from UCL, UK.

Intriguingly, the data also contain hints of the presence of hydrogen cyanide, a marker for carbon-rich atmospheres.

“Such an amount of hydrogen cyanide would indicate an atmosphere with a very high ratio of carbon to oxygen,” said Olivia Venot, KU Leuven, who developed an atmospheric chemical model of 55 Cancri e that supported the analysis of the observations.

“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,” concludes Jonathan Tennyson, UCL. “Although hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid, is highly poisonous, so it is perhaps not a planet I would like to live on!”

Notes


[1] 55 Cancri e has previously been dubbed the “diamond planet” because models based on its mass and radius have led to the idea that its interior is carbon-rich.


[2] Hubble observed the super-Earths GJ1214b and HD97658b in 2014, using the transit method. The observations did not show any spectral features, indicating an atmosphere covered by thick clouds made of molecular species much heavier than hydrogen.

More information

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The results were summarized by Tsiaras et al. in the paper “Detection of an atmosphere around the super-Earth 55 Cancri e” which is going to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team of astronomers in this study consists of A. Tsiaras (UCL, UK), M. Rocchetto (UCL, UK), I. P. Waldmann (UCL, UK), O. Venot (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium), R. Varley (UCL, UK), G. Morello (UCL, UK), G. Tinetti (UCL, UK), E. J. Barton (UCL, UK), S. N. Yurchenko (UCL, UK), J. Tennyson (UCL, UK).

University College London was founded in 1826. It was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35 000 students from 150 countries and over 11 000 staff.

Links
Images of Hubble
Link to science paper
Release on the Europlanet Media Centre website

Contacts

Angelos Tsiaras
UCL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 3549 5844
Email: atsiaras@star.ucl.ac.uk

Giovanna Tinetti
UCL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 7912509617
Email: g.tinetti@ucl.ac.uk

Olivia Venot
KU Leuven
Belgium
Email: olivia.venot@ster.kuleuven.be

Mathias Jäger
ESA/Hubble, Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 176 62397500
Email: mjaeger@partner.eso.org

Anita Heward
Europlanet Media Centre
Tel: +44 (0) 7756 034243
Email: anita.heward@europlanet-eu.org

Rebecca Caygill
Media Relations Manager
UCL Communications & Marketing, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3846
Email: r.caygill@ucl.ac.uk

Mathias Jäger | ESA/Hubble Media Newsletter
Further information:
http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1603/?lang

Further reports about: Atmosphere ESA Europlanet Hubble Hubble Space Telescope NASA hydrogen cyanide

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Magnetic nano-imaging on a table top
20.04.2018 | Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

nachricht New record on squeezing light to one atom: Atomic Lego guides light below one nanometer
20.04.2018 | ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Spider silk key to new bone-fixing composite

University of Connecticut researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibers that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.

Repairing major load-bearing bones such as those in the leg can be a long and uncomfortable process.

Im Focus: Writing and deleting magnets with lasers

Study published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces is the outcome of an international effort that included teams from Dresden and Berlin in Germany, and the US.

Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia...

Im Focus: Gamma-ray flashes from plasma filaments

Novel highly efficient and brilliant gamma-ray source: Based on model calculations, physicists of the Max PIanck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg propose a novel method for an efficient high-brilliance gamma-ray source. A giant collimated gamma-ray pulse is generated from the interaction of a dense ultra-relativistic electron beam with a thin solid conductor. Energetic gamma-rays are copiously produced as the electron beam splits into filaments while propagating across the conductor. The resulting gamma-ray energy and flux enable novel experiments in nuclear and fundamental physics.

The typical wavelength of light interacting with an object of the microcosm scales with the size of this object. For atoms, this ranges from visible light to...

Im Focus: Basel researchers succeed in cultivating cartilage from stem cells

Stable joint cartilage can be produced from adult stem cells originating from bone marrow. This is made possible by inducing specific molecular processes occurring during embryonic cartilage formation, as researchers from the University and University Hospital of Basel report in the scientific journal PNAS.

Certain mesenchymal stem/stromal cells from the bone marrow of adults are considered extremely promising for skeletal tissue regeneration. These adult stem...

Im Focus: Like a wedge in a hinge

Researchers lay groundwork to tailor drugs for new targets in cancer therapy

In the fight against cancer, scientists are developing new drugs to hit tumor cells at so far unused weak points. Such a “sore spot” is the protein complex...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Unique scope of UV LED technologies and applications presented in Berlin: ICULTA-2018

12.04.2018 | Event News

IWOLIA: A conference bringing together German Industrie 4.0 and French Industrie du Futur

09.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Magnetic nano-imaging on a table top

20.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Start of work for the world's largest electric truck

20.04.2018 | Interdisciplinary Research

Atoms may hum a tune from grand cosmic symphony

20.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>