Space Telescope Spitzer Finds Planet Larger than Earth

SF News – Spitzer Space Telescope has detected a “super Earth planet” in a different star system than ours.  The planet is not habitable but its detection will help scientists in searching other solar systems to find new life forms in outer space.

NASA scientists credited the findings to Spitzer and its ability to study distant atmospheres.  They hope to use the same technology when a new Space Telescope called “James Webb” is launched in to space, scheduled in 2018, to continue exploration for life on other planets.

“55 Cancri e” is two times as big as earth and eight times as massive.  One side of the planet always faces the star. Spitzer findings show that the planet is dark and the side that is facing its star can get as high in temperature as 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit.  Since it has no atmosphere, scientists don’t expect the heat to reach the dark side of the planet.

Despite the heat, 55 Cancri e has a rocky core surrounded by water.  Due to the extreme conditions on the planet; water stays in a special state which is described as both gas and liquid covered with a blanket of steam.

55 Cancri e is about 41 light years away from our planet which is considerably close.  Five planets in its solar system have already been identified.  55 Cancri e is the closest planet to the star of this solar system. 

Spitzer uses an infrared method to search for potentially habitable planets and for molecules in them related to life.

“When we conceived of Spitzer more than 40 years ago, exoplanets hadn’t even been discovered,” said Michael Werner, Spitzer project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Because Spitzer was built very well, we have been able to adapt it to this new field and make historic advances such as this.”

In 2005, Spitzer became the first telescope to detect light from a planet beyond our solar system proving that planets do exist outside our solar system.

The method used to discover new planets is quite sophisticated.  In this method, a telescope gazes at a star as a planet circles behind it. When the planet disappears from the view, the light from the star system dips ever so slightly, but enough that astronomers can determine how much light came from the planet.  The information tells about temperature of the planet and sometimes its atmosphere.