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Scientists publish first heat map of exoplanet

"We haven't yet found any other planet that is this small and orbits so close to its parent star," said astronomer Brice-Olivier Demory.
By Brooks Hays   |   Updated March 30, 2016 at 4:42 PM

CAMBRIDGE, England, March 30 (UPI) -- Scientists at the University of Cambridge created the first temperature map of an exoplanet. They published the map in the journal Nature this week.

The map reveals a two-faced world -- one half almost entirely molten and the other solid. Temperatures on the hot side of the exoplanet can soar upwards of 2500 degrees Celsius. Highs on the cool side max out at 1100 degrees.

Scientists plotted the map of exoplanet 55 Cancri e using temperature data collected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

The data revealed an especially hot planet -- hot enough that the atmosphere of 55 Cancri e likely burned off several million years ago.

Temperature variances revealed on the planet's surface could mark unique geological features.

"The day side could possibly have rivers of lava and big pools of extremely hot magma, but we think the night side would have solidified lava flows like those found in Hawaii," study co-author Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium, told NASA.

Exoplanet 55 Cancri e orbits sun-like star lying 40 light-years away in the constellation Cancer. And like most most alien worlds that stick closer to their host star -- its orbit lasts just 18 hours -- 55 Cancri e is rocky.

The exoplanet is twice the size of Earth and eight times Earth's mass.

"We haven't yet found any other planet that is this small and orbits so close to its parent star, and is relatively close to us, so 55 Cancri e offers lots of possibilities," lead study author Brice-Olivier Demory, an astronomer with Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, explained in a news release.

"We still don't know exactly what this planet is made of -- it's still a riddle," Demory said. "These results are like adding another brick to the wall, but the exact nature of this planet is still not completely understood."

Its composition isn't all that remains a mystery. Researchers also aren't sure how the planet gets so hot, as its tremendous heat is even greater than that suffused by the power of its star. Unfortunately, researchers may have to wait until the next generation of space telescopes launch to solve that mystery.

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