CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 8 (UPI) -- Researchers have detected the first major atmospheric shift outside our solar system. Over the course of two years, scientists have observed a three-fold temperature shift in the atmosphere of a super Earth called 55 Cancri e.
The exoplanet of interest is one of five that orbit the binary star system 55 Cancri, located 40 light-years away in the constellation Cancer. Researchers detected the temperature shift after analyzing data collected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The data show both an extreme contrast between night and day temperature, and a change in thermal emissions over time.
Researchers can't confirm the reason for the shift, but preliminary findings suggest an uptick in volcanic activity on the surface of the exoplanet. The study, published online this week, features a number of scientific firsts.
"This is the first time we've seen such drastic changes in light emitted from an exoplanet, which is particularly remarkable for a super Earth," Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan, a researcher at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy and study co-author, said in a press release. "No signature of thermal emissions or surface activity has ever been detected for any other super Earth to date."
The exoplanet 55 Cancri e is known as a super Earth because its rocky sphere is double the size and eight times the mass of Earth. Most planets of that size are composed of gas.
While the new research isn't offering many answers, it may usher in a new type of research and a wrinkle in the quickly expanding search of habitable alien worlds and the extraterrestrials that might live there -- the study of alien atmospheres.
"The present variability is something we've never seen anywhere else, so there's no robust conventional explanation," Madhusudhan said. "But that's the fun in science -- clues can come from unexpected quarters. The present observations open a new chapter in our ability to study the conditions on rocky exoplanets using current and upcoming large telescopes."