Discovered: Fifth Rock From The Sun
September 16, 2009 by JLister

Astronomers in Europe have found what they believe to be the first solid planet identified outside of our solar system. But don’t start packing up your belongings yet: at more than 2000 degrees Fahrenheit it’s likely a touch too toasty for human life.

Staff at the European Southern Observatory first detected an object orbiting a star named TYC 4799-1733-1 early last year; as an orbiting object outside our solar system, the object is classed as an exoplanet. The star and exoplanet were later renamed CoRoT-7 and CoRoT-7b respectively.

Since announcing the discovery in February this year, the astronomers have put together more detail about it. They already knew the radius of the planet, its orbit time, and the distance between it and the star. After gathering together data from more than 70 hours of observation and working out how long it takes the object to revolve, they were able to calculate that the planet’s mass is around five times that of Earth.

Now knowing both the radius and mass of CoRoT-7b, the astronomers believe it must be a solid or “rocky” planet similar to that of Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars.

Not only is it the first solid exoplanet discovered, but with a radius around 80% bigger than Earth, CoRoT-7b is closer in size to our own planet than any other known exoplanet, regardless of substance.

There is a pretty significant difference though: its temperatures are around 2000 degrees Celsius during the day and minus 200 at nighttime. Didier Queloz, who led the research, says it’s likely the surface is home to lava or boiling oceans and “may well look like Dante’s Inferno.” (Picture, courtesy of ESO, shows artists impression.)

The astronomers believe it’s unlikely that CoRoT-7b is the only solid exoplanet out there. There are around a dozen known exoplanets of a similar size, though in each other case astronomers either haven’t calculated the mass or can’t calculate it. They also say that given CoRoT-7b is only 500 light years away – comparatively near in the big picture of space – the chances are there are many more solid exoplanets further afield, increasing the possibility of one existing with temperatures suitable for life.

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