In the next few weeks, the James Webb Space Telescope will give scientists their first look at a “super-Earth”, 50 light-years away, and NASA is preparing for the worst.
The planet 55 Cancri e orbits so close to “its Sun-like star” that conditions on its surface might be like Bible describe Hell. A burning planet.
NASA reports that 55 Cancri e is less than 1.5 million miles from its star, which is one-quarter the distance between Mercury and the sun.
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NASA revealed last week that the dayside of the planet is believed to be covered in oceans of lava due to surface temperatures above the melting threshold of conventional rock-forming materials.
“Imagine if the Earth was significantly closer to the Sun. So close that a year consists of only a few hours. Due to their proximity, gravity has imprisoned one hemisphere in everlasting, sweltering sunshine and the other in perpetual night. So near that seas begin to boil, rocks begin to melt, and skies begin to drip lava.”
NASA reports that nothing comparable exists in our solar system.
Scientists seek to determine if the planet is “tidally locked, with one side always facing the star” or whether it spins in such a way as to produce day and night.
Initial observations from NASA’s less powerful Spitzer Space Telescope indicate that something unusual is occurring at 55 Cancri e, as the hottest area is not facing the star directly.
NASA states that one idea suggests the planet has “a dynamic atmosphere that transports heat around.”
A second idea is that 55 Cancri e spins in a way that makes day and night, but with scary results.
As NASA explains: “In this scenario, the surface would heat up, melt, and even evaporate throughout the day, creating a very thin atmosphere that Webb might detect.”
“In the evening, the vapor would cool and condense into lava raindrops, which would fall back to the surface and solidify as night fell.”
NASA estimates that the James Webb Space Telescope will be completely operational in “a few weeks” and that its first observations will occur over the summer.
According to experts, the telescope can detect the presence of an atmosphere.
NASA said that the mission’s first year will be spent researching 55 Cancri e and the airless planet LHS 3844 b in an effort to comprehend “the development of rocky worlds like Earth.”