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NASA’s Webb Hints at Possible Atmosphere Surrounding Rocky Exoplanet

: Illustration of a rocky exoplanet and its star. The star is in the background at the lower left and appears somewhat, but not significantly, smaller in the sky than the planet. It has a bright orange-red glow, and appears to have an active surface.

This artist’s concept shows what the exoplanet 55 Cancri e could look like. Observations by NASA’s Webb telescope suggest it may be surrounded by an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, which could have bubbled up from of an ocean of magma on the planet’s surface.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

Researchers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope may have detected atmospheric gases surrounding 55 Cancri e, a hot rocky exoplanet 41 light-years from Earth. This is the best evidence to date for the existence of any rocky planet atmosphere outside our solar system.

Renyu Hu from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is lead author on a paper published today in Nature. “Webb is pushing the frontiers of exoplanet characterization to rocky planets,” Hu said. “It is truly enabling a new type of science.”

Super-Hot Super-Earth 55 Cancri e

55 Cancri e, also known as Janssen, is one of five known planets orbiting the Sun-like star 55 Cancri, in the constellation Cancer. With a diameter nearly twice that of Earth and density slightly greater, the planet is classified as a super-Earth: larger than Earth, smaller than Neptune, and likely similar in composition to the rocky planets in our solar system.

Infographic titled “Super-Earth Exoplanet 55 Cancri e Secondary Eclipse Light Curve, MIRI Low-Resolution Spectroscopy.” At the top of the infographic is a diagram showing a planet moving behind its star (a secondary eclipse).

Data from the Mid-Infrared Instrument on NASA’s Webb telescope shows the decrease in brightness of the 55 Cancri system as the rocky planet 55 Cancri e moves behind the star, a phenomenon known as a secondary eclipse. The data indicates that the planet’s dayside temperature is about 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI), Aaron Bello-Arufe (JPL)

To describe 55 Cancri e as “rocky,” however, could leave the wrong impression. The planet orbits so close to its star (about 1.4 million miles, or one-twenty-fifth the distance between Mercury and the Sun) that its surface is likely to be molten — a bubbling ocean of magma. With such a tight orbit, the planet is also likely to be tidally locked, with a dayside that faces the star at all times and a nightside in perpetual darkness.

In spite of numerous observations since it was discovered to transit in 2011, the question of whether or not 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere — or even could have one given its high temperature and the continuous onslaught of stellar radiation and wind from its star — has gone unanswered.

“I’ve worked on this planet for more than a decade,” said Diana Dragomir, an exoplanet researcher at the University of New Mexico and co-author on the study. “It’s been really frustrating that none of the observations we’ve been getting have robustly solved these mysteries. I am thrilled that we’re finally getting some answers!”

Unlike the atmospheres of gas giant planets, which are relatively easy to spot (the first was detected by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope more than two decades ago), thinner and denser atmospheres surrounding rocky planets have remained elusive.

Previous studies of 55 Cancri e using data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope suggested the presence of a substantial atmosphere rich in volatiles (molecules that occur in gas form on Earth) like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. But researchers could not rule out another possibility: that the planet is bare, save for a tenuous shroud of vaporized rock, rich in elements like silicon, iron, aluminum, and calcium. “The planet is so hot that some of the molten rock should evaporate,” explained Hu.

Graphic titled “Super-Earth Exoplanet 55 Cancri e Emission Spectrum, NIRCam Grism Spectroscopy (F444W), MIRI Low-Resolution Spectroscopy” shows a graph of amount of light detected from planet versus wavelength of light, with 2 model emission spectra.

A thermal emission spectrum of the exoplanet 55 Cancri e — captured by the NIRCam instrument, GRISM Spectrometer, and MIRI Low-Resolution Spectrometer on NASA's Webb telescope — shows that the planet may be surrounded by an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide and other volatiles.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI), Renyu Hu (JPL), Aaron Bello-Arufe (JPL), Michael Zhang (University of Chicago), Mantas Zilinskas (SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research)

Measuring Subtle Variations in Infrared Colors

To distinguish between the two possibilities, the team used Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) to measure 4- to 12-micron infrared light coming from the planet.

Although Webb cannot capture a direct image of 55 Cancri e, it can measure subtle changes in light from the system as the planet orbits the star.

By subtracting the brightness during the secondary eclipse, when the planet is behind the star (starlight only), from the brightness when the planet is right beside the star (light from the star and planet combined), the team was able to calculate the amount of various wavelengths of infrared light coming from the dayside of the planet.

This method, known as secondary eclipse spectroscopy, is similar to that used by other research teams to search for atmospheres on other rocky exoplanets, like TRAPPIST-1 b.

Cooler Than Expected

The first indication that 55 Cancri e could have a substantial atmosphere came from temperature measurements based on its thermal emission, or heat energy given off in the form of infrared light. If the planet is covered in dark molten rock with a thin veil of vaporized rock or no atmosphere at all, the dayside should be around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (~2,200 degrees Celsius).

“Instead, the MIRI data showed a relatively low temperature of about 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit [~1540 degrees Celsius],” said Hu. “This is a very strong indication that energy is being distributed from the dayside to the nightside, most likely by a volatile-rich atmosphere.” While currents of lava can carry some heat around to the nightside, they cannot move it efficiently enough to explain the cooling effect.

When the team looked at the NIRCam data, they saw patterns consistent with a volatile-rich atmosphere. “We see evidence of a dip in the spectrum between 4 and 5 microns — less of this light is reaching the telescope,” explained co-author Aaron Bello-Arufe, also from NASA JPL. “This suggests the presence of an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, which absorb these wavelengths of light.” A planet with no atmosphere or an atmosphere consisting only of vaporized rock would not have this specific spectral feature.

“We’ve spent the last 10 years modeling different scenarios, trying to imagine what this world might look like,” said co-author Yamila Miguel from the Leiden Observatory and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON). “Finally getting some confirmation of our work is priceless!”

Bubbling Magma Ocean

The team thinks that the gases blanketing 55 Cancri e would be bubbling out from the interior rather than being present ever since the planet formed. “The primary atmosphere would be long gone because of the high temperature and intense radiation from the star,” said Bello-Arufe. “This would be a secondary atmosphere that is continuously replenished by the magma ocean. Magma is not just crystals and liquid rock; there’s a lot of dissolved gas in it, too.”

While 55 Cancri e is far too hot to be habitable, researchers think it could provide a unique window for studying interactions between atmospheres, surfaces, and interiors of rocky planets, and perhaps provide insights into the early conditions of Earth, Venus, and Mars, which are thought to have been covered in magma oceans far in the past.

“Ultimately, we want to understand what conditions make it possible for a rocky planet to sustain a gas-rich atmosphere: a key ingredient for a habitable planet,” said Hu.

This research was conducted as part of Webb’s General Observers (GO) Program 1952. Analysis of additional secondary eclipse observations of 55 Cancri e are currently in progress.

More About the Mission

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

MIRI was developed through a 50-50 partnership between NASA and ESA. A division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, JPL led the U.S. efforts for MIRI, and a multinational consortium of European astronomical institutes contributes for ESA. George Rieke with the University of Arizona is the MIRI science team lead. Gillian Wright is the MIRI European principal investigator.

The MIRI cryocooler development was led and managed by JPL, in collaboration with Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

While the planet is too hot to be habitable, detecting its atmosphere could provide insights into the early conditions of Earth, Venus, and Mars.