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For the first time ever, scientists have been able to detect a light from an alien 'Super-Earth'- A class of planets that are bigger than earth, but lighter than giant planets like Neptune. Called the 55 Cancri e, it is one of five-planets that orbit around their star, 55 Cancri.
While the team of scientists led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Brice-Olivier Demory, have known of its presence since 2004 and have been able to study it indirectly by analyzing how the light around the 55 Cancri changed when 55 Cancri 'e' orbited in front of the star, this is the first time they have been able to detect a light directly from the planet itself.
Unfortunately, this 'Super Earth' estimated to be twice as big and eight times the mass of Earth, is not habitable and therefore, not likely to have any aliens!
That's because while 55 Cancri e, revolves around its star in a speedy 18 hours, it does not revolve around its own axis.
This means that one side is permanently facing the sun. Since it does not have enough atmosphere to spread the heat around, nor any ice caps to reflect it, the planet absorbs all the heat, and sports a temperature of 2,000 Kelvin (3,140° Fahrenheit) - Hot enough to melt metal. On the flip side, the other half gets no heat at all, and therefore has a temperature too low to sustain life.
However, the scientists are not disappointed - Just the direct detection of an exoplanet is a historic step toward the eventual search for other similar planets, that may be exactly like Earth just, super-sized!
The glimpse of the actual planet also confirmed what scientists had already suspected - That the 55 Cancri e has a rocky core and is surrounded by a layer of water that is in a 'supercritical' state - which means it is both liquid and gas and covered by a blanket of steam. Situated a relatively close 41 light years (240 trillion miles) away, the 55 Cancri exoplanet system comprises of five planets, with the 55 Cancri e located closest to its star.
Though this find is incredible, what is even more so is Spitzer, the Space telescope that detected it. Conceived more than 40 years ago, a time when exoplanets had not yet been discovered, it was sent to Space in 2003. In 2005, the powerful $720 million USD telescope was the first to detect an exoplanet and, while it was originally scheduled to last just 2.5 years, it continues to lead the way in spotting these never before seen, celestial objects.
It does this by beaming back the change in infrared light from the exoplanet as it circles behind its star. What scientists are able to observe is a light that dips very slightly, just enough for them to be able to distinguish between the light beamed from the planet and that beamed from its star. This little sliver of information is all they need to figure out the temperature of the exoplanet and in a majority of cases, even its atmospheric components.
In 2018, NASA scientists are hoping to do even better than that, when they launch the James Webb Telescope that will hopefully be powerful enough to not only spot exoplanets, but also, its inhabitants! Our eternal hope and search for alien life continues. . . . .