The first super-Earth discovered by astronomers has been generating strange signals for nearly two decades, and scientists may finally understand their cause. According to a new study, volcanoes on this hellish planet regularly erupt and spew hot gas, creating a fiery atmosphere and leaving the planet bald. Testing this theory involves pointing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at the strange exoplanet. Planet 55 Cancri e, a rocky world eight times more massive than our planet, was discovered in 2004, about 40 light-years from Earth.
The planet is so close to its parent star, less than 2% of the distance between Earth and the Sun, that it completes an orbit in just 17 hours. This created quite harsh conditions on the planet that still cannot be explained. Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of this planet, as outlined in a September article in the Astrophysical Journal, is the nature of its transit signal. This is the visible light from Earth as 55 Cancri e passes in front of its parent star, creating a small eclipse, and the visible light as the planet passes behind its star.
Sometimes, when 55 Cancri e passes behind its star, the planet emits no visible light, while other times the planet emits a strong visible light signal. In infrared light, there is always a signal, even if its intensity changes. Observations of infrared radiation from the Spitzer Space Telescope have shown that the day side of the planet has extremely scorching temperatures of more than 2,427 degrees Celsius, while the night side has cooler but still terrible, about 1,127 degrees Celsius.
The authors of the new study suggest that the planet’s close proximity to its star causes outgassing, that is, the opening of giant volcanoes and hot springs spewing hot elements, rich in carbon into the atmosphere. But due to the intense heat, the planet could not retain its atmosphere for long and the gas was eventually washed away, leaving the planet bare until outgassing began again. Unlike most planets, 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere is unstable. Outgassing tries to thicken the atmosphere, and the star’s intense radiation and solar wind drive it away. However, these two processes are not balanced, so this planet sometimes has an atmosphere and sometimes does not.
Researchers believe an imbalance in the planet’s atmosphere could explain the strange transit signals. When a planet is in the bald stage without an atmosphere, no visible light is emitted because there is no atmosphere, but the planet’s hot surface still emits infrared rays. As the atmosphere expands, visible light and all radiation from the surface appear in the transition signal.