Scientists Discover Nearby Earth-sized Exoplanet Covered in Lava

By Chelsea Whyte on July 19, 2012 3:48 AM EDT

exoplanet
UCF scientists have detected what could be its first planet, only two-thirds the size of Earth and located right around the corner, cosmically speaking, at a mere 33 light-years away. (Photo: Artist's Rendering provid)

Astronomers have found a planet two-thirds the size of Earth orbiting a relatively close star. The exoplanet lives 33 light years away and treks around its home star in 1.4 Earth days.

It's an inhospitable place made up of molten lava or volcanoes, with surface temperatures likely reaching more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, researchers said. If the toasty, little planet ever had an atmosphere, it most likely evaporated, which would leave a cratered, mostly geologically dead world like Mercury. Researchers suggest that because it orbits so close to its star, the extreme heat could have eliminated its atmosphere.

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"We have found strong evidence for a very small, very hot and very close-by planet with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope," said Kevin Stevenson, a recent Ph.D graduate from the University of Central Florida and lead author of the paper, which appears online tomorrow in The Astrophysical Journal.

Stevenson and colleagues were studying a Neptune-sized exoplanet called GJ 436b orbiting the same star when they noticed slight dips in the amount of infrared light coming from the star.

"I could see these faint dips in the starlight and I wanted to determine their source. I knew that if these signals were periodic, they could be from an unknown planet," Stevenson said.

That planet, dubbed UCF 1.01, has only two-thirds the gravity of Earth and joins GJ 436b as a member of a multi-planet system around the star. Discovered using the Spitzer telescope, this is the first multi-transiting-planet system described by a mission other than Kepler. In addition to UCF-1.01, Stevenson and his colleagues noticed hints of a third planet, dubbed UCF-1.02, orbiting GJ 436.  

NASA's Kepler space telescope uses this same technique to look for so-called transiting planets, reports Discovery News. The smaller the planet, however, the more difficult the search. Of the 1,800 stars identified by Kepler as candidates for having planetary systems, only three are verified to contain sub-Earth size exoplanets. 

UCF-1.01 remains a planet candidate - rather than an officially recognized planet - because researchers have yet to measure its mass, according to The Huffington Post. But the discovery team thinks it's the real deal.

"Despite the lack of a confirmed mass, the team is confident future observations will verify our findings," said UCF planetary sciences professor Joseph Harrington. 

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