by Michael Salla

May 15, 2012

from ExopoliticsInstitute Website



For the first time, NASA has been able to detect infrared light from a rocky “super-earth” variety of exoplanets.


The Spitzer Space Telescope detected infrared light from the exoplanet “55 Cancri e” which has a rocky core and is nearly twice the Earth’s diameter, and eight times its mass.


While 55 Cancri e is much too close to its sun - 55 Cancri A - to sustain life as we know it, the detection is a historic first for NASA.






An artist's concept of 55 Cancri e,

a hot "super-Earth" that orbits its sun every 18 hours.

Credit: NASA

How to See a Super Earth
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope was able to detect a super Earth's direct light for the first time using its sensitive heat-seeking infrared vision.

Super Earths are more massive than Earth but lighter than gas giants like Neptune.

As this artist's concept shows, in visible light, a planet is lost in the glare of its star (top view).

When viewed in infrared, the planet becomes brighter relative to its star.

This is largely due to the fact that the planet's scorching heat blazes with infrared light.

Even on our own bodies emanate more infrared light than visible due to our heat.
Spitzer cannot distinguish between the planet and star - it just sees the total light of the system.

However, its infrared eyes can see the dip in total light that occurs as a planet passes behind its star (the dip is minuscule when viewed in visible light).

The resulting drop then reveals how much direct light comes from the planet itself.

This information can be used to determine a planet's temperature, and in some cases, composition.

For 55 Cancri e, the Spitzer observations indicated that the planet is very dark and that its sun-facing side is scorching hot, about 2,000 kelvins (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit).


The detection of infrared light on the super-earth category of exoplanets, prime candidates for finding extraterrestrial life, makes possible the discovery of alien cities in distant solar systems.

On May 8 NASA announced:

“NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected light emanating from a "super-Earth" beyond our solar system for the first time. While the planet is not habitable, the detection is a historic step toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets.”

According to Dario Borghino from Gizmag:

“This marks the first time that light has been detected from a planet of such a small size, and the find is telling astrophysicists where to look in their search for signs of life on planets beyond our own.”


The plot shows how the infrared light from the 55 Cancri system,

both the star and planet, changed as the planet passed behind its star. Credit NASA.

The plot shows how the infrared light from the 55 Cancri system, both the star and planet, changed as the planet passed behind its star. When the planet disappeared, the total light dropped, and then increased back to normal levels as the planet circled back into view. The drop indicated how much light came directly from the planet itself. This type of information is important for studying the temperatures and compositions of planetary atmospheres beyond our own.


The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched by NASA in 2003 and studies the universe in infrared light.


In contrast to the Kepler Space Telescope that studies how distant stars dim as exoplanets cross in front of them, Spitzer analyzes infrared light directly from the exoplanet itself. Basically, as the exoplanet goes behind the sun, the total infrared light from the sun and exoplanet dims.


In the NASA statement announcing the finding, the infrared light coming from both “55 Cancri e” and its sun were analyzed in the attached table (see slideshow). As 55 Cancri e” dropped behind its sun, the total thermal emission dropped, and increased when the exoplanet appeared again in its orbit.

This raises the question, could Spitzer detect a large extraterrestrial metropolis giving off heat in a distant world?


We can look for an answer from Dr. William Danchi, Spitzer program scientist who states:

The radiation that is measured is in the infrared, which is sensitive to the composition as well as temperature of the atmosphere of the planet. Spitzer was able to measure such a small diameter planet because it was hot, and hot objects emit exponentially more photons that cool objects. It would be much harder to detect a small, cool planet.

An earth like planet in a distant solar system orbiting the habitable region of its solar system, would be much cooler than 55 Cancri e which is much closer to its sun, but,

  • What if the habitable exoplanet was covered by very large extraterrestrial cities generating vast amounts of heat?

  • Could the thermal infrared signature of an alien New York City be seen using the detection method pioneered by the Spitzer telescope?


Infrared satellite image of New York City, USA.



While Spitzer may lack the detection sophistication to measure the thermal signature of large alien metropolises, its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope is being promoted as having such a capacity.


According to NASA:

The [Spitzer] spacecraft is pioneering the study of atmospheres of distant planets and paving the way for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to apply a similar technique on potentially habitable planets.

The James Webb telescope launches in 2018, until then, we will have to rely on the Spitzer telescope which officially retires in 2014, to find an alien New York City.