Super-Earth’s atmosphere isn’t super for life

Image: Exoplanet
An artist’s impression shows the super-Earth 55 Cancri e in front of its parent star. The star is slightly smaller, cooler and less massive than our sun. (Credit: M. Kornmesser / ESA / Hubble)

For the first time, astronomers have conducted a spectral analysis of a distant super-Earth’s atmosphere – and the results show it would be a hellish place to visit.

We already knew that about 55 Cancri e, which is about 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cancer. It circles its parent star once every 18 hours, in an orbit so close that its surface temperature is 3,900 degrees Fahrenheit (2,100 degrees Celsius). The world, which is also known as Planet Janssen, is eight times as massive as Earth and has been nicknamed the diamond planet due to its carbon content.

Now we know the planet’s air would be poisonous, even if it we could cool it down.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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