NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was able to detect a super Earth’s direct light for the first time using its sensitive heat-seeking infrared vision. Super Earth‘s are more massive than Earth but lighter than gas giants like Neptune. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
As this artist’s concept shows, in visible light, a planet is lost in the glare of its star (top view). When viewed in infrared, the planet becomes brighter relative to its star. This is largely due to the fact that the planet’s scorching heat blazes with infrared light. Even on our own bodies emanate more infrared light than visible due to our heat.
The planet, called 55 Cancri e, falls into a class of planets termed super Earths. The planet is about twice as big and eight times as massive as Earth. It orbits a bright star, called 55 Cancri, in a mere 18 hours.
Super Earths are exotic planets unlike any in our solar system. They are more massive than Earth yet lighter than gas giants like Neptune, and they can be made of gas, rock or a combination of both. There are about 70 known to circle stars beyond our Planetery system, and NASA’s Kepler mission has detected hundreds of candidates.
“Spitzer has amazed us yet again,” said Bill Danchi, Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The spacecraft is pioneering the study of atmospheres of distant planets and paving the way for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to apply a similar technique on potentially habitable planets.”