Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ultra-Hot Super-Earth

55 Cancri is a yellow dwarf star that is located just 41 light years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation of Cancer. This star has a slightly lower mass and a slightly lower luminosity as compared to our Sun. As of 2010, five extrasolar planets are known to orbit 55 Cancri. The innermost planet is a terrestrial super-Earth planet with a few times the mass of our Earth while the outer 4 planets are gas giant planets with masses similar to Jupiter. A recent paper by Winn et al. (2011) that is entitled “A Super-Earth Transiting a Naked-Eye Star” describes the detection of transits of the innermost planet which orbits 55 Cancri. The innermost planet is designated 55 Cancri e and it was previously discovered in 2004 from radial velocity measurements.

55 Cancri e was formerly reported to have an orbital period of 2.808 days, but this value has since been revised down to just 0.7365 days or 17 hours and 41 minutes. “You could set dates on this world by your wristwatch, not a calendar,” study co-author Jaymie Matthews of the University of British Columbia said in a statement. This revision to the planet’s orbital period increased the likelihood that the planet could transit its host star from an initial probability of 13 percent to 33 percent. Observations by the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars telescope (MOST) lead to the discovery of the transits of 55 Cancri e in front of its host star. Each transit of 55 Cancri e lasts just over 100 minutes in duration and during each transit, 55 Cancri e blocks just 0.018 percent of the light from its host star.

From the amount of dimming imposed by the transit of 55 Cancri e in front of its host star, the diameter of 55 Cancri e is estimated to be 20800 kilometres, making this planet 63 percent larger than the Earth in diameter. Radial velocity measurements have also shown that 55 Cancri e has 8.57 times the mass of the Earth. With the size and mass of the planet known, the mean volumetric density of 55 Cancri e is estimated to be 10.9 grams per cubic centimetre, making this planet twice as dense as the Earth and the densest solid planet found anywhere so far. This suggests a rock-iron composition that is similar to the Earth under significantly more gravitational compression.

The amazingly short orbital period of 55 Cancri e means that this planet is located only 1.5 million kilometres from the fiery surface of its host star. In this extreme infernal environment, the temperature at the substellar point of 55 Cancri e could approach 3000 degrees Kelvin if the planet is tidally locked and if the incoming heat remains on the dayside. However, if the heat is distributed over the entire surface of the planet and if the planet has an albedo of zero, the temperature will be a lower but still blistering 2100 degrees Kelvin.

It is unlikely that 55 Cancri e can hold on to an atmosphere that is comprised of gases with low molecular weights. However, volcanic activity on 55 Cancri e can sustain a thin atmosphere with gases of high molecular weights. The presence of an atmospheric wind on 55 Cancri e could shift the hot spot away from the planet’s substellar point. On the surface of 55 Cancri e, any object will weigh 3 times heavier than it does on Earth. During the day, the host star of 55 Cancri e will appear thousands of times brighter and tens of times larger than our Sun appears from the Earth.