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Hubble Data Allows Astronomers to Detail 'Super-Earth's' Atmosphere


Having already spotted so-called "super-Earth" exoplanets, NASA's Hubble Telescope has turned its attention to identifying the specific details of their atmosphere.

Based on data from the prolific telescope, scientists have done just that, marking a first for exoplanet research, according to BBC News. The researchers published their findings on the planet dubbed 55 Cancri e in the Astrophysical Journal.

"This is a very exciting result because it's the first time that we have been able to find the spectral fingerprints that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth," study lead author Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at University College London, said in a press release. "Our analysis of 55 Cancri e's atmosphere suggests that the planet has managed to cling on to a significant amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it formed."

Exoplanets like 55 Cancri e are called super-Earths because they are far more massive than our planet but do not quite stack up to its gas giant neighbors. 55 Cancri e orbits a star about 40 light years from Earth, and its discovery and the following analysis of its atmosphere is giving astronomers high hopes for future space telescopes like the James Webb Telescope.

"If we can do this with Hubble, we are very confident that we can significantly improve with future instruments," Ingo Waldmann, a post-doctoral research assistant at UCL, told Discovery News. "These next-generation facilities will blow the field of exoplanet spectroscopy wide open and allow insight that, to date, we cannot even imagine. In other words, we really are on the threshold of taking planetary science from our solar system into the galaxy."

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