Diamond Planet Closely Orbiting Neighboring Sun Won't Collide Anytime Soon, Scientists Say

By Shweta Iyer on April 22, 2014 12:08 PM EDT

cancri e
Scientists have wondered whether two planets, including one made almost entirely of diamonds, that are part of a planetary system 40 light years away will soon collide with each other or their sun, as they both orbit closely. Scientists have now discovered that they won't. (Photo: NASA)

After years of research, a team of astronomers from Penn State University have created a viable model representing the planetary system of 55 Cancri, a system about 40 light years away that's believed to have the first ever known planet, 55 Cancri e, made up almost entirely of diamond.

The 55 Cancri system, with its five planets, has been a mystery to astronomers, as they haven't been able to determine the exact masses and orbits of two of the system's giant planets, which orbit closer to their sun (55 Cancri) than Mercury is to our sun - yet, they still haven't collided with each other or the sun. What keeps them in their orbit, away from the path of destruction? The researchers tried answering this question by analyzing to the planets' properties with new statistical and computational models.

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"The 55 Cancri planetary system is unique in the richness of both the diversity of its known planets, and the number and variety of astronomical observations," said Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Eric Ford, coauthor of the paper, in a press release. "The complexity of this system makes it unusually challenging to interpret these observations."

To analyze the planets, computer scientists developed a sophisticated tool capable of simulating the planetary orbits. Their calculations suggested that one of the giants, planet 55 Cancri e, has eight times the mass and double the radius of Earth, though both have the same density. The planet is uninhabitable because it's nearly 38 times hotter than the hottest place on Earth, at 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and therefore, can't even hold liquid water.

In 2011, observations suggested that 55 Cancri e, which is the inner-most planet 55 e, orbited its sun at super speed, getting around it in just 18 hours - scientists originally though it took three days. Soon after, astronomers detected the shadow of the planet passing over the Earth, allowing them to measure the size of the planet relative to the size of the star.

"These two giant planets of 55 Cancri interact so strongly that we can detect changes in their orbits," graduate student and lead author Benjamin Nelson said in the release. "These detections are exciting because they enable us to learn things about the orbits that are normally not observable. However, the rapid interactions between the planets also present a challenge since modeling the system requires time-consuming simulations for each model to determine the trajectories of the planets and therefore their likelihood of survival for billions of years without a catastrophic collision."

The new analysis one-ups previous studies, Ford said, because it is more accurate. Other studies "ignored planet-planet interactions," or were too simplistic in their calculations.  

Located in the constellation Cancer, 55 Cancri can be seen from Earth as a bright shining system. Its sun is about the same mass as that of our system. Its closeness has allowed astronomers to give it special attention, measuring the velocity of the star from four different observatories over a thousand times, Assistant Professor Jason Wright said.

The Penn State researchers are among a group of scientists hoping to identify more Earth-like planets with the help of highly advanced computer technology and telescopes. 

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