Jun 04, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

NASA Discovers Hell -- Or Its Planetary Double

A majority of, but not all, religions depict hell – the afterlife domain where the evil suffer punishment for eternity – as a place of fiery torture hotter than anywhere humans can imagine. Well, we may not have to imagine hell much longer. NASA announced that the new James Webb Space Telescope is about to give us a look at a super-Earth planet a mere 50 light years away that just might be hot enough to make a devil sweat. Is the 'Inferno' section of Dante’s Divine Comedy due for a rewrite?

“Imagine if Earth were much, much closer to the Sun. So close that an entire year lasts only a few hours. So close that gravity has locked one hemisphere in permanent searing daylight and the other in endless darkness. So close that the oceans boil away, rocks begin to melt, and the clouds rain lava.”

Does that sound like hell to you? In a press release describing one of the first projects for the James Webb telescope, NASA introduces us to 55 Cancri e, a planet orbiting the Sun-like star 55 Cancri A orbits less than 1.5 million miles from its surface – that’s one-twenty-fifth the distance between our own solar system hothouse Mercury and the Sun. that orbit is so tight, a year on 55 Cancri e is less than 18 hours. Like an alien fruit fly, at least life on this planet would be short … but certainly not sweet.

NASA depiction of the James Webb Space Telescope fully deployed

NASA expects the Webb telescope to see a surface covered with oceans of molten lava. In fact, it is speculated that molten lava covers most of 55 Cancri e because, unlike other planets with extremely tight orbits around their stars, it does not have one side permanently facing the star and the other dark. Mercury is not ‘tidally locked’ either – it rotates three times for every two orbits (a 3:2 resonance) that gives it a night and a day cycle. 

“55 Cancri e could have a thick atmosphere dominated by oxygen or nitrogen. If it has an atmosphere, [Webb] has the sensitivity and wavelength range to detect it and determine what it is made of.”

It seems hard to believe, but this hell of a planet may actually have an atmosphere, according to Renyu Hu of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory whose team will use Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to measure the thermal emission spectrum of the day side of 55 Cancri e. That hot atmosphere and the weirdly timed day-night cycle may be causing the planet's surface to act in a way that throws off the heating and cooling of its lava, resulting in problems for its weather reporters.

“Just like on Earth, it would take time for the surface to heat up. The hottest time of the day would be in the afternoon, not right at noon.”

If that’s the case, this may be an even worse kind of hell, according to Alexis Brandeker, a researcher from Stockholm University who leads another team studying 55 Cancri e. He sees the surface of the planet heating up, melting and vaporizing during the day, then raining droplets of lava at night, which would solidify and start the entire process over again the next day. Kind of a Groundhog Day in hell. (Soon to be a movie?) 

The observations of 55 Cancri e will be conducted as part of Webb’s Cycle 1 General Observers program, which allocates 6,000 hours using the full suite of JWST instrumentation to scientists based on a review of their proposal. The program is expected to begin very soon.

Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Coincidentally, this project is a mini international salute to famous astronomers. 55 Cancri e is also known as Janssen in honor of the Dutch spectacle maker and telescope pioneer Zacharias Janssen. Janssen has a sister planet 55 Cancri b which is nicknamed Galileo in honor of the Italian astronomer. And their star 55 Cancri A is also called Copernicus in a tribute to the Polish astronomer.

With the James Webb Space telescope about to become operational, Janssen, Galileo and Copernicus are probably looking at it with envy from the afterlife. Hopefully, not in hell.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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