June 2, 2022

NASA sets eyes on Hell-like planet that rains lava at night

NASA will soon unveil an enhanced look at two exoplanets that closely resemble the Earth, although you might want to hold off on packing your bags. 

One of the first orders of business for NASA’s renowned James Webb Telescope is taking a closer look at 55 Cancri e, a super-hot planet that orbits closer to its central star than Mercury does the Sun. This means that the planet is likely covered in flowing magma, according to NASA scientists. They also believe that the potential existence of a weak atmosphere on the planet means it could rain lava at night. 

The planet takes a mere 18 hours to orbit its central star. When planets orbit stars so closely, they usually orbit in a manner called “tidally locked” where the same side of the planet faces the star at all times. But scientists believe this planet might rotate on its own, meaning the heat generated by its proximity to the star is spread throughout its globe. Experts will also hopefully determine whether the planet contains nitrogen or oxygen. 

Scientists also plan to observe another exoplanet, called LHS 3844 b, that is much cooler than its lakes-of-lava counterpart. This one appears to be solid rock and contains no atmosphere. The telescope won’t be able to photograph the surface of the planet, but scientists will use other instruments to measure infrared signals and other data points to try and determine the geological makeup of the planet. 

The James Webb Telescope is renowned as the world's premier telescope, helmed by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

The James Webb Telescope is renowned as the world’s premier telescope, helmed by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.


Findings from both will help give the science community a better understanding of the origins of our own Earth. 

“They will give us fantastic new perspectives on Earth-like planets in general,” said Laura Kreidberg of the Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, in a NASA release. “[They’ll help] us learn what the early Earth might have been like when it was hot like these planets are today.”

The James Webb Telescope is part of an international space program that will explore our solar system and beyond. For the most of 2022, soon after it was launched into space, scientists have been calibrating and fine-tuning its instruments. But now, it’s fully ready for its exploration mission guided by Earthlings from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. 

“As we near the end of preparing the observatory for science, we are on the precipice of an incredibly exciting period of discovery about our universe,” said Eric Smith, a scientist who works on the Webb program at NASA. “The release of Webb’s first full-color images will offer a unique moment for us all to stop and marvel at a view humanity has never seen before. These images will be the culmination of decades of dedication, talent, and dreams – but they will also be just the beginning.”

The first images from the telescope will be unveiled July 12. Images from other projects, including those of the two exoplanets, will be released in its first year of operation. 

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