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Astronomers Have Made First Detection of Super-Earth's Atmosphere

An international team, directed by scientists from the University College London (UCL) in the UK, has been able to study the atmosphere of an exoplanet- 55 Cancri e, for the first time. It’s about eight times the mass of our own Earth, so also called the Super-Earth. It is located in the planetary system which is about 40-light years away from Earth.

The researchers by using the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, observed that this exoplanet has a dry atmosphere consisting mostly of hydrogen and helium, with no sign of any water vapors. The researchers gathered the observations made by scanning the WFC3 swiftly across the star to generate a number of spectra. By coalescing these observations through analytic software, the researchers obtained the spectrum of 55 Cancri e surrounded in the light of its parent star. This is for the first time that the atmosphere of a Super-Earth has been observed. The WFC3 has already been used to explore the atmosphere of other two Super-Earths, but couldn’t get any information at that time.

Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at UCL who initiated the analysis technique along with his colleagues Ingo Waldmann and Marco Rocchetto, said “This is a very exciting discovery because it’s the first time that we’ve been able to find the signs that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth. The findings indicate that this planet has managed to cling on to a significant amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it originally developed.”

Super-Earths are considered to be the most common type of planet in our galaxy. They are called as Super-Earths because of their huge size but still smaller than the gas giants of our solar system.

Giovanna Tinetti, from UCL, UK said “These consequences explain about the atmosphere of a super-Earth. Now we have clues about how this planet is currently like and how it might have originated, and this has important insinuations for 55 Cancri e and other super-Earths.”

The data also shows signs of the presence of hydrogen cyanide which means, the atmosphere is carbon-rich. Olivia Venot, KU Leuven, who created an atmospheric chemical model of 55 Cancri e that endorsed the analysis of the observations said “Such an amount of hydrogen cyanide would show an atmosphere with a very high ratio of carbon to oxygen.”

“If the presence of hydrogen cyanide and other molecules is confirmed in a few years by more modern infrared telescopes, it would support the theory that this planet is indeed carbon rich and a very exotic place. Although hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid, is highly poisonous, so it is not a planet we would like to live on!” said Jonathan Tennyson, fromthe UCL.

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