We Just Found a Giant Planet With an Earth-Like Atmosphere

Friday, 17 November 2017 - 10:55AM
Science News
Space Imagery
Friday, 17 November 2017 - 10:55AM
We Just Found a Giant Planet With an Earth-Like Atmosphere
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Image credit: NASA
There aren't a lot of planets in our area of the galaxy that have convenient oxygen-rich atmospheres.

In fact, this phenomenon is so rare that scientists have been looking out specifically for works with gas atmospheres like our own because this is a pretty good indicator as to whether or not a planet might play host to some form of alien life.

Analyzing data from the previously discovered 55 Cancri e, scientists now think that they might have stumbled upon a planet with an atmosphere that's almost identical to our own, containing nitrogen, oxygen, and water vapor. Such a discovery might suggest that we could be on our way to finally discover a habitable world, were it not for 55 Cancri e's big, inescapable drawback.

It's pretty hard for life to survive, let alone flourish, in temperatures of up to 2,300°Celsius (4,200°Fahrenheit).

55 Cancri e is much larger than the planet Earth, and atmosphere aside, doesn't share much in common with our home world. The planet orbits its star at a teeny tiny 0.016AU (1AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun), meaning that it completes an orbit in just eighteen hours. This, naturally, makes 55 Cancri e far too hot for any form of life, and if that weren't bad enough, it's also constantly erupting with volcanic lava, making it a less than ideal holiday home should Earthlings ever figure out the secrets to interstellar travel.

Nevertheless, the fact that 55 Cancri e might have an oxygen-rich atmosphere raises some interesting questions, not least, how such an environment would form and stay put.

55 Cancri e is locked in a tidal orbit, which means that one side of the planet is constantly facing the sun, while the other is always dark (but only slightly less hot). Scientists theorize that on the planet, lava would pour out of the roasted day side of the planet, before flowing to the night side and cooling into rock—presumably, this would also make the planet a particularly weird shape.

Volcanic activity doesn't normally make for an Earthy atmosphere, and things are made more complicated by the fact that 55 Cancri e's proximity to its sun should mean that the planet ought not to be able to maintain an atmosphere. Being that close to a star should, by all rights, cause 55 Cancri e's oxygen and other gases to be stripped away over time.

55 Cancri e was first discovered back in 2016 by the Spitzer Space Telescope, but it seemed unremarkable at the time. Scientists have recently taken a closer look at the planet, and noted that the way light reflects off the world closely resembles the presence of an atmosphere that's rich in oxygen and nitrogen.

Perhaps we've finally discovered the location of Mustafar, the Star Wars lava planet that inexplicably has breathable air. Or, potentially more exciting, we might have come across something that modern science can't yet explain.

Certainly, it does seem that this may be yet another case of widely held scientific belief proving less than entirely accurate when viewed against the backdrop of the universe, and a reminder that there's no way of knowing what kind of weird and wonderful planets exist somewhere out there in the cosmos.

These instances are always a treat, and it suggests that there are new breakthroughs on the horizon as we study, and learn from, anomalies that don't make sense based on our current understanding of the universe.

If this previously discovered world was hiding a breathable atmosphere all along, who knows what other potentially habitable worlds exist across the galaxy, waiting for us to take a closer look?
Science News
Space Imagery
This Giant Planet Has an Earth-Like Atmosphere, But There's a Catch