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A NASA research team detects the atmosphere of a rocky exoplanet for the first time

A NASA research team detects the atmosphere of a rocky exoplanet for the first time

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With the help of the James Webb Space Telescope, researchers were able to detect a gas envelope around 55 Cancri e. The exoplanet is a true volcanic planet.

PASADENA – When it comes to space exploration and space travel, there are few things that fascinate people more than the question of whether there are extraterrestrial life forms out there somewhere. A particularly promising place to search for extraterrestrial life is exoplanets.

It is difficult to find direct evidence of life there, but some elements and, above all, the intact atmosphere can serve as clues. Now it appears that scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), have for the first time succeeded in detecting such a phenomenon on the rocky planet 55 Cancri e.

The exoplanet 55 Cancri orbits its host star Copernicus within a very short period of time (illustration) © Science Photo Library/Imago

NASA researchers make a groundbreaking discovery about the exoplanet 55 Cancri e through a study

“I've been working on this planet for more than a decade,” says Diana Dragomir, an exoplanet researcher at the University of New Mexico in the US. “It was really frustrating that none of the feedback we received really solved the puzzle. I'm glad we finally got some answers,” one of the co-authors commented in the journal nature published Stady.

Planet 55 Cancri e, also called Janssen, the innermost planet among the five planets orbiting the star Copernicus A, was the researchers' target. About twice the size of Earth and weighing eight to nine times its size, it is an impressive rocky planet. However, its surface is likely less rocky and more like a lava ocean.

Representing the orbits of the Solar System is the short distance 55 Cancri E to the home of the star Copernicus
Compared with the orbits of the Solar System, the short distance of 55 Cancri e to the main star Copernicus is evident. (Montage/illustration) © NASA

Extreme conditions prevail on this planet. The exoplanet orbits its host star in only about 17 hours and faces only one side at a time. At 55 degrees Celsius, temperatures exceeding 1500 degrees are reached. These conditions are hardly conducive to life and in fact preclude the existence of an Earth-like atmosphere.

Surface lava may have facilitated the formation of the secondary atmosphere around 55 Cancri E

However, the new results suggest that the inhospitable volcanic landscape of 55 Cancri e may have contributed to the formation of the second atmosphere. Infrared measurements of the planet emitted by the James Webb Space Telescope led researchers to suspect that Janssen may be surrounded by a “volatile atmosphere” rich in carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

According to the specialized portal astronomy.com “The planet appears to have a relatively dense atmosphere despite the strong winds coming from its nearby star, the ongoing volcanic activity, and the planet's gravity.” “At these temperatures, everything on the planet melted. If it is a rock, it is molten lava,” said Renyu Hu, a member of the research team. Outgassing processes on the molten surface could have promoted the formation of a secondary atmosphere.

The exoplanet 55 Cancri e may have developed a secondary atmosphere, according to the latest research results. (Illustration) © Dreamstime Aicrovisi/Imago

The original atmosphere was probably composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. However, it is likely that radiation from the nearby star destroyed this first 'gas shell'. The researchers also suspect that the precise composition of the atmosphere may have changed over time.

Life on an exoplanet 55 Cancri e is not possible – “Better understanding the formation of habitable worlds”

The question of how the second atmosphere is able to persist despite extreme conditions can be answered by the dimensions of 55 Cancri e. “It's 1.8 times the size of Earth, and it's a very large piece of rock – this helps retain volatiles against stellar radiation,” he explains. Some exoplanets are larger than Janssen

A smaller, rocky planet in a similar orbit would quickly lose its fluctuating “budget” and soon become without an atmosphere. Another one that is potentially habitable However, the exoplanet appears to be destroying its atmosphere.

Although the exoplanet, located about 41 light-years away, does not provide the conditions in which life could develop despite its gaseous atmosphere, the findings could serve as a starting point for future studies. This research could investigate how planets create and maintain habitable conditions in hostile environments in the universe. “We can use this information to calibrate our models and ultimately gain a better understanding of how habitable worlds form,” Hu said.