Astrophysicists at NASA, working with the ESA and the University College London, announced Tuesday that they have found a “super-Earth” exoplanet with an atmosphere for the first time.
The Hubble telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) first discoverd the planet, dubbed 55 Cancri e, which is only around 40 light years away. Super-earths are merely rocky planets that are larger than the Earth — in this case, eight times bigger. They’re widely supposed to be the most common type of rocky planet in the galaxy.
“This is a very thrilling result as it’s the first time that we have been capable to find the spectral fingerprints that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth,” UCL PhD student Angelos Tsiaras said in a statement. “The observations of 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere propose that the planet has managed to cling on to a substantial amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it originally formed.”
Unluckily, 55 Cancri e probably doesn’t sustain life. Its atmosphere seems to be comprised almost completely of hydrogen and helium with no traces of water. Plus, the planet is so close to its star that a year there lasts 18 Earth-hours and the surface of the planet can get as hot as 2,000 degrees C.