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Queen's University astronomer leads international team to detect a Super Earth

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How the planet compares size-wise with Earth

How the planet compares size-wise with Earth

Astronomer Dr Ernst de Mooij

Astronomer Dr Ernst de Mooij

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How the planet compares size-wise with Earth

It's a sizzling 1,700C in temperature, and a year lasts 27 days.

But the uncomfortable sounding Super Earth planet of 55 Cancri e could be a vital stepping stone in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe.

Astronomer Dr Ernst de Mooij from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast led an international team that has used an Earth-based telescope to detect a Super Earth, a planet with more mass than Earth but less than Uranus or Neptune.

Until now, only space telescopes were able to detect planets close to the size of the Earth that pass in front of stars like the Sun.

Dr de Mooij says 55 Cancri e periodically passes in front of its star, which is only 490 light years from Earth. The star can even be seen with the naked eye on a clear and moonless night.

The planet is far from hospitable for life, with twice the diameter of Earth and massively high temperatures.

"Because the planet orbits very close to the star, a year there only lasts 27 Earth days and it's extremely hot.

"What we tried to do was find the atmosphere which we needed to detect with a land telescope," he said.

"The atmosphere is the only way we can study what the planet is like. We believe an atmosphere is the minimal requirement for life but we don't really know.

"But if we only look at something that is like Earth, then we might miss a form of life that is different from ours."

It will be a long time before we are realistically able to search for extra-terrestrial life but what is happening paves the way for that search.

It will allow the study of many more planets similar in size to Earth with telescopes on the ground. Some of these planets may have the conditions needed to sustain life.

Dr de Mooij said: "This is especially important because upcoming space missions such as the NASA TESS mission in 2017 and ESA's PLATO mission in 2024, which should find many small planets around bright stars which are ideally suited for this type of study."

Study co-author Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, of York University, Canada, said: "Observations like these are paving the way as we strive towards searching for signs of life on alien planets from afar. Remote sensing across tens of light-years is not easy, but it can be done with the right technique and a bit of ingenuity."

The findings appear in a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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