The James Webb Telescope will soon study two super-Earths in the Milky Way

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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is almost ready to get to work. The telescope mirrors are perfectly aligned. The team is currently completing final calibrations of the spacecraft’s various instruments. Once that’s done, Webb will be ready to get to work. One of the first things NASA plans to do with it is to study two “super-Earth” planets known as 55 Cancri e and LHS 384 b.

It should be noted that both planets are located in our own Milky Way galaxy.

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NASA prepares first year of James Webb studies

The James Webb Telescope in space

The James Webb Telescope in space

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched in December 2021. By the end of January, the spacecraft had reached its final destination, more than a million miles from our planet. It took a few months, but by the end of April, NASA had fully aligned Webb’s mirrors and was ready to calibrate its instruments.

So far, test footage captured by Webb has provided unparalleled detail, giving us a deeper look into the universe. As NASA works to finalize these calibrations, the agency is already preparing for the craft’s first year of studies. One of the first things on the list is further study of two super-Earth planets.

These are the super-Earth planets that NASA wants to study

illustration comparing super-earth planets to earth and neptune

illustration comparing super-earth planets to earth and neptune

The first super-Earth planet Webb will examine is 55 Cancri e. What makes this planet so special is its orbit less than 2.5 million kilometers from its star. Thus, it makes a complete circuit in orbit in less than 18 hours. Because it is so close, surface temperatures are extremely hot, well above the melting point of standard rock minerals.

The star has one side of this super-Earth planet locked in constant, searing daylight. Eternal darkness bathes the other side in black. NASA hopes Webb can detect more about 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere. Scientists also think the planet could be raining lava; another factor that Webb can investigate further.

The second super-Earth planet is LHS 3844 b. Where 55 Cancri e will offer a glimpse of a lava-covered world, LHS 3844 is much cooler. It will offer Webb the chance to explore an exoplanet with a solid rocky surface.

This planet also orbits extremely close to its star, completing an orbital circuit in just 11 hours. However, because its star is so small and cold, the planet is not hot enough for the surface to melt.

Spitzer’s observations of LHS 3844 so far suggest it has no atmosphere. That’s something NASA hopes to confirm using Webb’s observations. The space agency says studying these two super-Earth planets should give us better insight into Earth-like exoplanets and exoplanets in general.

Don’t let the name confuse you, though. Although called super-Earths, these exoplanets are not habitable. Instead, the name is just a classification for planets that are more massive than Earth, but not as massive as the ice giants in our system. They are also typically twice the size of Earth (or nearly so) and up to 10 times its mass.

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