Scientists on a planetary-heat-seeking mission have detected the first infrared light from a super-Earth — in this case, a planet some 40 light-years away. And according to their calculations, 55 Cancri e, a planet just over twice the size of Earth, is throwing off some serious heat.
At a toasty 3,700 degrees Fahrenheit, the planet is hot enough to liquefy steel. And there’s not much relief from the scorching heat: Researchers at MIT and other institutions say the planet may lack reflective surfaces such as ice caps, instead absorbing most of the heat from its parent star — much as Earth’s dark oceans trap heat from the sun.
Since the planet’s discovery in 2004, scientists have unearthed a number of its properties; the new findings, published in the current issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, expand the physical profile of 55 Cancri e. The planet orbits the star 55 Cancri, part of the crablike constellation Cancer, which is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye.
Using telescopes on the ground and in space, scientists examine light patterns from a star to determine the traits of any planets around it. Periodic dips in starlight indicate that a planet has transited, or passed in front of, its star. From this data, scientists have now calculated 55 Cancri e’s radius (twice that of Earth’s) and the duration of its orbit (18 hours, versus our leisurely 365 days).