Astronomers using the CoRoT space telescope have found the smallest extrasolar planet to date. The planet, dubbed CoRoT–Exo–7b, is less than twice the size of the Earth. It has a surface temperature of over 1000 degrees because it orbits extremely close to its parent star — and the exoplanet completes one orbit in just 20.5 hours.
Most of the 330 exoplanets discovered so far are gas giant planets that resemble Jupiter. Very few with masses comparable to Earth’s have been discovered because they are difficult to detect. CoRoT managed to identify such a small object because it is sensitive to a planet’s surface rather than just its mass — as in other methods to detect extra-solar planets, which detect the wobble of a star caused by an orbiting planet. COROT also orbits 900 km above the Earth and can detect changes in star brightness as small as 0.01%, which is about 10 times better than the best ground-based telescopes.
The exoplanet circles a star about 400 light-years from Earth and was detected by measuring the slight dimming of a star each time an orbiting planet passes in front of it. Although the density of CoRoT–Exo–7b has not yet been determined, the scientists believe it might be a rocky object like Earth and covered with molten rock. It is therefore unlikely to harbour life as we know it on Earth.
Important milestone for planet hunters
The new result is an important milestone for planet hunters, says Jean Schneider from the Laboratory Universe and Theories at the Paris Observatory, because recent measurements hinted at the existence of planets with small mass but their size had never been determined now.