NASA glimpses surface of distant rocky exoplanet

Kepler spotted thousands of exoplanets during its mission

Kepler spotted thousands of exoplanets during its mission

A new study reports that exoplanets like LHS 3844b - hot, rocky planets orbiting small stars - do not retain substantial atmospheres, or any atmosphere at all. In its current form, the planet has little to no atmosphere and could be covered in the same cooled volcanic material, known as mare, that composes the dark lunar regions of the Earth's Moon.

Planet LHS 3844b is located 48.6 light-years from Earth and has a radius 1.3 times that of Earth, according to NASA. From that, they could calculate the brightness of the planet-and hence its temperature.

But it was follow-up observations from another orbiting instrument, the Spitzer Space Telescope, which can detect infrared light directly from an exoplanet, that provided new insights about its features.

It only takes 11 hours for LHS 3844b to fully orbit around its star, meaning it is probably tidally locked to the M dwarf so that one side is always facing the star. The planet's parent star is relatively cool (though still much hotter than the planet), making direct observation of LHS 3844b's dayside possible.

"In our quest to place our own solar system and planetary home in context, we have to understand the broad diversity of other Earth-like worlds out there", noted Stassun. Its surface, however, is a lot less hospitable than that of Earth.

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The findings, published this week in the journal Nature by a team of researchers from Harvard, MIT and more, are illustrative of the broader scientific mission to understand the factors that could preserve or destroy atmospheres in planets with Earth-like characteristics, as scientists embark on research for habitable environments beyond our solar system. The world, called LHS 3844b, resides less than 50 light-years from Earth and is slightly larger than our planet.

"I'm still hopeful that other planets around M dwarfs could keep their atmospheres", Kreidberg said.

The Spitzer Space Telescope studied the planet's surface reflectiveness.

Artist's illustration depicts the exoplanet LHS 3844b. The team says its likely that LHS 3844b completely lacks any atmospheric cover at all, as it's doubtful even a thin atmosphere could persist under the expected conditions on the planet. "We know that the maria of the Moon are formed by ancient volcanism", Hu said, "and we postulate that this might be what has happened on this planet". However, don't start packing just yet: LHS 3844b seems to be very hot and lacking in atmosphere - literally and figuratively.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Space operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado.

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