Erupting volcanoes may cause exoplanet’s temperature extremes

Spitzer telescope observes fluctuations of more than 1,000 degrees

Illustration of exoplanet 55 Cancri e

The partially molten surface of 55 Cancri e (left, illustrated) might periodically be blanketed by volcanic dust (right), which could explain observed temperature swings of over 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Visitors to exoplanet 55 Cancri e should dress in layers; daytime temperatures can fluctuate by more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. Volcanic plumes might trigger deep chills, making the planet potentially the first volcanically active body known outside the solar system.

From 2011 to 2013, the planet’s temperature fluctuated between a balmy approximately 1,000° C and a scorching 2,700°, Brice-Olivier Demory, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, and colleagues report. As the temperature dropped, the planet’s atmosphere puffed up slightly. An injection of dust into the skies from erupting volcanoes could explain both observations, the researchers suggest in an upcoming Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Demory and colleagues used the Spitzer Space Telescope to monitor the planet, which sits about 40 light-years away in the constellation Cancer.  Each time the planet slipped behind its star, the total amount of infrared light seen from Earth dipped a bit, which let the researchers measure the heat radiating from the planet. 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated May 20, 2015, to correct the exoplanet’s high and low temperature values.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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