A Glimpse of the Future | Vol. 3 / No. 16.3

The Hubble Space Telescope | Photo: Ruffnax (Crew of STS-125), cc0 (public domain)
The Hubble Space Telescope | Photo: Ruffnax (Crew of STS-125), cc0 (public domain)

The Hubble Space Telescope just looked at the atmosphere of a super-Earth, and for the first time figured out (some of) what it’s made of. Read on!


Scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope gave us our first taste of the future this week, taking compositional readings on the atmosphere of a “super-earth” just forty light years away. This marks the first time we’ve returned and analyzed compositional data from a super-earth’s atmosphere.

In a preprint paper uploaded February 9 on arxiv.org, the team led by scientists from University College London use the data from Hubble’s WFC3 camera to study a planet known as 55 Cancri e, a rocky planet roughly eight times the mass of Earth, orbiting a G-type star (55 Cancri A, or Copernicus) in a binary system. (The other star, 55 Cancri B, is a smaller red dwarf.) 55 Cancri e (also known as planet Janssen, and the diamond planet) orbits very close to its star. How close? So close that a year lasts just 18 hours. And its average temperature? Yeah that’s something like 2000 degrees. That’s Celsius, but it doesn’t matter much, because that’s going to kill you regardless. Aluminum melts at 660 C.

But part of what made it so interesting to look at is that, because it passes in front of its star so often, the Hubble could get a good long look. Over and over and over.

This transit method allowed it to look at the light as it passed through Janssen’s atmosphere, and what it found was very interesting. Mostly, it’s hydrogen and helium, but there’s also what they suspect is quite a bit of hydrogen cyanide. Janssen had been theorized to have a lot of carbon in its core, but hydrogen cyanide would mean an atmosphere with a high ratio of carbon to oxygen. The reading can’t be confirmed as yet, because the light they’re working with is so close to the infrared range. But once we get the next-generation infrared telescopes up there — like the JWST —  they’ll be able to confirm this new, thoroughly interesting planetary chemistry.

What we’re seeing here is so cool because it’s the future of exploration. Hubble wasn’t designed for this kind of work, and can only do it because some very clever people found a way of making the best of very limited data. But soon we’ll be sending up new telescopes designed specifically for this purpose.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out more about our celestial neighbours.

For more on the announcement, check out the Hubble site, or visit arxiv.org for the paper itself.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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