Scientists have discovered a brand new planet only 40 light years away from that is very much like Earth, except for the fact that it is super big and super hot, of course. The new planet has temperatures that swing wildly from 1,800 to 4,900 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of a two-year period. Astronomers don't yet know what might be responsible for these huge shifts in temperature, but in a new study they suggest that massive volcanoes on the surface may be to blame.
"While we can't be entirely sure, we think a likely explanation for this variability is large-scale surface activity, possibly volcanism," said Brice-Olivier Demory of the University of Cambridge in a statement.
In the new study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Demory describes how the gas and dust from volcanic plumes may periodically blanket the thermal emission of the planet as seen from Earth, making its atmosphere appear cooler to our telescopes.
The extreme planet is known as 55 Cancri E. The planet is considered a super Earth, meaning it is also rocky just like our planet but super Earths can be anywhere from 2 to 10 times the size of our own planet. In the case of 55 Cancri E, it is about twice the diameter of the Earth, but has eight times the mass. It is also tidally locked with its star, meaning that is has one side that stays in perpetual day, while the other side always remains in darkness.
It was first discovered in 2004 and was the first rocky planet ever to be found. Before that time, only gas giants were discovered because they are so much easier to spot due to their size which can be up to 300 times the size of our little Blue Planet.
This super Earth rests a little to close to its host star for our standards and takes just 18 days to complete a single orbit around its sun. Because the planet is so hot even on its coolest days, its outmost shell is likely weakened and could be entirely molten. Researchers say that this could lead to oceans of magma and strong volcanic activity.
However, it will be some time before researchers will know for sure as it will take many more observations and potentially more sensitive equipment in order to properly ascertain what is going on with this super Earth.
"The present variability is something we've never seen anywhere else, so there's no robust conventional explanation," said Nikku Madhusudhan of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy and a co-author of the study in a statement.