Data gathered over 2 years using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows that the surface temperature of 55 Cancri e has undergone extreme changes. A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge have been studying the exoplanet, which is 40 light years away from Earth. 55 Cancri e is twice as large as Earth and 8 times as massive, writes Ian O’Neill for Discovery.
Active volcanoes: Groundbreaking discovery
“This is the first time we’ve seen such drastic changes in light emitted from an exoplanet, which is particularly remarkable for a super-Earth,” said study co-author Nikku Madhusudhan, of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. “No signature of thermal emissions or surface activity has ever been detected for any other super-Earth to date.”
A temperature swing of 1,000 to 2,700 degrees Celsius was detected on the “day-side” of the exoplanet, which could suggest that 55 Cancri e has a molten surface which is experiencing extreme volcanic eruptions. In our solar system, Jupiter’s moon Io is the only example of a celestial body which experiences extreme volcanic activity caused by tidal interactions with Jupiter, and the activity on 55 Cancri e is far more intense.
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Previously held theory questioned by findings
The discovery of intense volcanic activity has thrown into doubt the previous model, which suggested that 55 Cancri e was a “diamond planet” full of hydrocarbons.
“When we first identified this planet, the measurements supported a carbon-rich model,” said Madhusudhan. “But now we’re finding that those measurements are changing in time. The planet could still be carbon rich, but now we’re not so sure — earlier studies of this planet have even suggested that it could be a water world. The present variability is something we’ve never seen anywhere else, so there’s no robust conventional explanation.”
Large telescopes, both operational and upcoming, will allow scientists to continue to monitor the conditions on exoplanets. A paper published in 2010 claimed that it would be a number of years before scientists gained the ability to image a mega-volcano eruption taking place on a nearby exoplanet, but this latest research into 55 Cancri e may provide a sneak peek at what we can expect to see.