Scientists analyse super-Earth’s atmosphere

Nieuws | de redactie
2 december 2010 | For the first time, a group of German and US scientists succeeded in measuring the atmosphere of a super-Earth outside our solar system. This represents an important step towards finding other planets that might be inhabitable outside our solar system.

The team of scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center forAstrophysics analysed the light spectrum of a rocky planet 40 lightyears from Earth. In cosmic terms one might say that this planetcalled GJ 1214b is just around the corner.

The data the scientists used originated from the Very LargeTelescope from the Esa observatory in Chile. With the help of thistelescope it was possible to estimate the size of GJ 1214b being2,6 times bigger than our planet and 6,5 times as massive whatastronomers refer to as a “super-Earth”. At the same time, it takesGJ 1214b only 38 hours to complete a full circle around its star, ared dwarf. Scientists explain this with the fact that GJ 1214b is70 times closer to its star than the Earth to the sun. Red dwarfs,however, have only 1/300 of our sun’s radiation intensity whichexplains why GJ 1214b remains a solid composition of rock andice.

While the basics like size, consistency etc. about GJ 1214b seemto be clear, researchers are still unsure of what its atmosphereexactly consists. Three options seem to be likely. The firsthypothesis is that GJ 1214b is surrounded by a dense cloud of steamthat was vaporized by the neighbouring red dwarf. Anotherpossibility is that the planet is a rocky version of Neptune withan atmosphere of ice particles and a hydrogen helium mix. The lastoption entails that GJ 1214b has a rocky core with volcanoes mainlyemitting hydrogen and a mix of other gases to the atmosphere.

It is therefore not decided yet of what exactly the atmosphereof GJ 1214b consists of. Clear, however, is that GJ 1214b differssignificantly from all other planets scientists could observe sofar outside our solar system.

For the original publication by the science journalNature, click here

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