NASA is planning to study a unique exoplanet with boiling oceans, melting rock, and clouds with lava rain, called “55 Cancri e.”
On Thursday, NASA shared its plans to study two exoplanets with the help of the James Webb Space Telescope when it ends its setup in the next few weeks.
’55 Cancri e,’ dubbed “hell on earth,” is one of them. The other planet is known as ‘LHS 3844 b.’ It is cooler than ’55 Cancri e.’
In a press statement, NASA said, “Imagine if Earth were much, much closer to the Sun. So close that an entire year lasts only a few hours. So close that gravity has locked one hemisphere in permanent searing daylight and the other in endless darkness. So close that the oceans boil away, rocks begin to melt, and the clouds rain lava.”
‘55 Cancri e’ is at about 1/25 distance between Mercury and the sun in our solar system. It orbits fewer than 1.5 million miles from its home star.
NASA said, “Observations of 55 Cancri e from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope suggest that the hottest region is offset from the part that faces the star most directly. While the total amount of heat detected from the day side does vary.”
The exoplanet is almost eight times larger than Earth, NASA says
NASA says that another intriguing possibility is that 55 Cancri e may be like Mercury, rotating three times for every two orbits (what’s known as a 3:2 resonance). As a result, the planet would have a day-night cycle.
“That could explain why the hottest part of the planet is shifted,” explained Alexis Brandeker, a researcher from Stockholm University who leads another team studying the planet. “Just like on Earth, it would take time for the surface to heat up. The hottest time of the day would be in the afternoon, not right at noon,” he said.
Brandeker’s team plans to test this hypothesis using NIRCam to measure the heat emitted from the lit side of 55 Cancri e during four different orbits. If the planet has a 3:2 resonance, they will observe each hemisphere twice and should be able to detect any difference between the hemispheres.
In this scenario, the surface would heat up, melt, and even vaporize during the day, forming a very thin atmosphere that Webb could detect. In the evening, the vapor would cool and condense to form droplets of lava that would rain back to the surface, turning solid again as night falls.
In 2004, ‘55 Cancri e’ was discovered by researchers. It seems to be 7.99 times as big as Earth. This planet contains high amounts of volcanic activity.
“55 Cancri e could have a thick atmosphere dominated by oxygen or nitrogen,” said Renyu Hu of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.