Team finds smallest transiting extrasolar planet ever

Feb 03, 2009

The CoRoT satellite has discovered a planet only twice as large as the Earth orbiting a star slightly smaller than the Sun. It is the smallest extrasolar planet (planet outside our solar system) whose radius has ever been measured. The planet's composition is not yet certain, but it is probably made predominantly of rock and water. It orbits its host star in 20 hours, which is the shortest orbital period of all exoplanets found so far. Astronomers infer its temperature must be so high (over 1000 degrees C) that it should be covered in lava or superheated water vapour.

Most of the 330 or so exoplanets discovered so far are giant planets, primarily composed of gas, like Jupiter and Neptune. This new object, named CoRoT-Exo-7b, is very different. "Finding such a small planet wasn't a complete surprise", says Dr Daniel Rouan, from LESIA in Paris, who announced the discovery today at a conference in Paris. Dr Alain Leger from the Institut d'Astrophysique de Marseille, leader of the discovery paper, explains: "It could be an example of a so-called ocean planet, whose existence was predicted some years ago: a Neptune-like planet, made of ice around a rocky core, drifts so close to its star, the ice the melting to form a fluid envelope."

Such a small planets such as this one is extremely difficult to detect. CoRoT-Exo-7b was found because it passes in front of its host star, causing the star to dim very slightly once per orbit - a so-called transit, which in this case is only 0.03% deep. "We were able to see it with CoRoT because it is in space, with no atmosphere to disturb the measurements or daylight to interrupt them." explains Dr Roi Alonso, from the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille.

The team then had to make sure they were not seeing one of many other kinds of objects that can mimic planetary transits, using complementary observations from the ground. This is particularly challenging in the case of such a small planet, as Dr Aigrain from the University of Exeter explains "We ruled out every mimic except for a very improbable, almost perfect chance alignment of three stars. All our data so far is consistent with the transits being caused by a planet of a few Earth masses, though more data are needed for a precise mass estimate."

The discovery of CoRoT-Exo-7b is being announced today at the CoRoT Symposium 2009 in Paris and will be the published in a forthcoming special issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics dedicated to results from CoRoT.

CoRoT - which stands for Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits - was developed by the French Space Agency CNES, with important contributions from Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the European Space Agency, Germany, and Spain. It was designed to detect tiny variations in the luminosity of stars, with two scientific goals: searching for planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, and studying the internal structure of seismology.

This discovery is based on data from the CoRoT satellite and complementary observations made from the European Southern Observatory at Paranal and La Silla (Chile), the 80-cm telescope at the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute, and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii (operated by CNRS, CNRC, and University of Hawaii).

Source: University of Exeter

Explore further: What's the brightest star in the sky, past and future?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A recipe for returning Pluto to full planethood

Feb 20, 2015

A storm is brewing, a battle of words and a war of the worlds. The Earth is not at risk. It is mostly a civil dispute, but it has the potential to influence the path of careers. In 2014, a Harvard led debate ...

The controversy over interstellar messaging

Feb 20, 2015

Should we beam messages into deep space, announcing our presence to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there? Or, should we just listen? Since the beginnings of the modern Search for Extraterrestrial ...

Guiding our search for life on other earths

Feb 17, 2015

A telescope will soon allow astronomers to probe the atmosphere of Earthlike exoplanets for signs of life. To prepare, Lisa Kaltenegger and her team are modeling the atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds ...

A close call of 0.8 light years

Feb 17, 2015

A group of astronomers from the US, Europe, Chile and South Africa have determined that 70,000 years ago a recently discovered dim star is likely to have passed through the solar system's distant cloud of ...

Recommended for you

Could the Milky Way become a quasar?

16 hours ago

A quasar is what you get when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material at the core of a galaxy. The region around the black hole gets really hot and blasts out radiation that we can see billions ...

Galactic dinosaurs not extinct

17 hours ago

One of the biggest mysteries in galaxy evolution is the fate of the compact massive galaxies that roamed the early Universe.

Stars found forming at Milky Way's outer edge

Feb 27, 2015

Brazilian astronomers said Friday they had found two star clusters forming in a remote part of our Milky Way galaxy where such a thing was previously thought impossible.

New insight found in black hole collisions

Feb 26, 2015

New research by an astrophysicist at The University of Texas at Dallas provides revelations about the most energetic event in the universe—the merging of two spinning, orbiting black holes into a much larger ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Modernmystic
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2009
Can we get a little more meat here please?

What's the eccentricity, estimated diameter, what's the metalicity of the star it orbits, is it in the goldilocks zone??

ON EDIT: Nevermind, found my own info. For anyone else intrested...

http://exoplanet....oT-Exo-7&p2=b

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.