NASA heat map points to scorched "Super Earth" with vast magma pools
Using data collected byNASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, a team of astronomers have producedthe first ever heat map of an Earth-like exoplanet. The alien climatemap paints a grim picture of a world scorched by its close proximityto its host star, with extreme temperature variations noted betweenthe star-facing and far side of the planet.
To describe 55 Cancri e as a "super-Earth"could be considered somewhat misleading when used in conjunction withour home planet, as the two bodies bear few reconciling traits. Theplanet, which boasts a mass of around eight times that of Earth in abody roughly twice the size, is incredibly inhospitable when comparedto the blue marble on which we reside.
55 Cancri e is tidallylocked much like our Moon, meaning that the exoplanet only everdisplays one face to its parent star. The so-called super-Earth isalso known to orbit very closely with its parent star, taking only 18hours to complete a full cycle, resulting in hellish surfacetemperatures.
The new study drew ondata collected by Spitzer over the course of 80 hours as it observeddistinct phases of 55 Cancri e as it passed in front of its parentstar. These phases when observed from Earth are very similar to thephases of our Moon, and allowed the astronomers to build up a globalmap of the unusual super-Earth detailing heat distribution andtemperature changes across its surface.
The map displayed asurprising disparity in heat levels between the star-facing side ofthe exoplanet, which experiences a blistering temperature of 4,400º F(2,700 K), and the far side, which is believed to endure around 2,060º F(1,400 K).
The study jars withprevious interpretations of data that had led some to believe that 55Cancri e was something of a water world hosting a dense atmospherethat generated powerful winds responsible for distributing heat.
Instead, the teamasserts that the large difference in temperature between the star-facing and far sides of the planet act as evidence for a lack of such a system. Itis possible that the star-facing side of 55 Cancri e is characterizedby vast lava flows and prevalent magma pools. On the far side, thetemperature drops harshly enough for the flows to solidify,preventing heat from being distributed effectively.
The notion of lavaflows and pools of magma existing on the surface of 55 Cancri e arestrengthened by an observed shift in the location of the hottestpoint on 55 Cancri e to a position directly beneath the parent star.
A paper on the study isavailable online in the journal Nature.