UCL researchers have successfully detected hydrogen and helium gases on the exoplanet 55 Cancri e which is considered a super-Earth, but no detected of water vapor in the atmosphere of the planet. The exoplanet is 8 times the mass of Earth with scientists thinking its interior might contain carbon-rich materials or diamonds.
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In a study to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, the astronomers used new data supplied by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to analyze the finer details of 55 Cancri e.
"This is a very exciting result because it's the first time that we have been able to find the spectral fingerprints that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth," said Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at UCL who developed the analysis technique along with colleagues Dr Ingo Waldmann and Marco Rocchetto in UCL Physics & Astronomy.
"Our analysis of 55 Cancri e's atmosphere suggests that the planet has managed to cling on to a significant amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it formed," Tsiaras added.
Although smaller than gas giants within our Solar System, super-Earths have a mass larger than Earth and are considered to be the most common planetary type within our galaxy. Researchers have deployed the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) aboard the Hubble Telescope to probe the surface of two other super-Earths without really finding any spectral features in them.
A year on 55 Cancri e lasts for 18 hours with its surface temperature thought to reach 2000 degrees Celsius. This planet is situated in a solar system around 55 Cancri, a star in the Cancer constellation that is about 40 light-years away from Earth.
Professor Giovanna Tinetti of UCL Physics & Astronomy disclosed that the results obtained by retrieving spectral fingerprints embedded within the starlight of 55 Cancri e provides insight into the atmosphere of the super-Earth. This information now provides scientists with clues on the features of the exoplanet, its formation and evolution, and the impacts of this planet on other super-Earths.
New data obtained by the astronomers indicated hydrogen cyanide might be present in the atmosphere of 55 Cancri e, a market for carbon-rich planets containing diamonds. "Such an amount of hydrogen cyanide would indicate an atmosphere with a very high ratio of carbon to oxygen," said Dr. Olivia Venot, KU Leuven, Belgium.
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The research at UCL was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the ERC projects ExoLights and ExoMol.