NASA‘s James Webb Telescope is readying to unravel more mysteries of the universe, and in its sights is a rather extreme planet on which it might be raining lava. Now, astronomers are no stranger to exoplanets that harbor a hellish environment, which can offer anything from winds blazing at thousands of miles per hour to clouds that rain molten minerals. One such planet is WASP-121b, which was observed in more detail this year and produced some startling revelations. The tidally-locked planet has temperatures that can reach around 3,000 Kelvins, dissociating the atoms that form water and even vaporizing minerals that move up with the cloud.
Scientists observing the cosmic oddity found signs of crystalline Aluminum Oxide that also contains trace amounts of exotic metals such as Titanium and Vanadium, two metals that are found in gemstones like sapphires and rubies. Hot clouds originating on the planet’s day side are carried by winds gusting at around 11,000 miles per hour to the night side, where all the smoldering hot material is returned to the surface as precipitation. It appears that the Webb telescope, among all its stellar observations, will also lend a helping hand at studying another burning planet that happens to be completely inhabitable.
Say hello to 55 Cancri e, an exoplanet that is located some 41 light years away and orbits a star named Copernicus. Falling under the class of Super-Earths, it is nearly eight times as massive as the Earth and about twice its size, but takes less than a day (in Earth hours) to complete an orbit around its star, named Copernicus. Circling its star at a proximity of just 1.5 million miles, it is toasty on the planet. As per NASA’s findings, temperatures are so hot that typical rock-forming minerals melt away under the scorching heat of the planet’s day side which faces its star. The mention of day side is important here, because unlike Earth that rotates on its axis and offers an alternate day-light cycle, 55 Cancri e is tidally locked, which means one side of the planet — commonly known as the day side — permanently faces its sun, while the other side is dark and colder. But things on 55 Cancri e are a tad odd.
Tidally Locked, Or Just Fast Spin?
According to data relayed by the Spitzer Space Telescope, the hottest region on the planet is not the one that directly faces its star. Moreover, the amount of heat emanated from the day side doesn’t follow a uniform pattern, either, which is unusual for a tidally-locked planet. One of the explanations put forward by experts is that the planet’s nitrogen or oxygen-dominated atmosphere is actually dynamic. Scientists are hoping that the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) hardware on the James Webb Space Telescope will offer more conclusive evidence about what’s really happening on 55 Cancri e. An alternative explanation is that the planet is not tidally locked at all. Instead, it rotates three times for every two revolutions, offering a rather peculiar version of a planetary day-night cycle.
But that’s not the most extreme aspect about the planet. As mentioned above, the temperatures are so high on the day side that minerals melt and vaporize to form clouds that constitute the planet’s thin atmosphere. The clouds of vaporized mineral clouds are then carried over to the planet’s cold side where they likely precipitate as lava rain. This sounds hellish, but NASA has already observed planets that could potentially be raining down molten metals due to the infernal temperatures. Early observations suggest that the atmosphere of 55 Cancri e — which was discovered in 2004 — has a healthy amount of silicates that form sparkling clouds. A 3D model created by NASA’s Visualization Technology Applications and Development makes the planet look like a smoldering orb.
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