It’s the size of Jupiter, orbits at about the distance of Mercury, and isn’t too far from the temperature range of Earth. Meet Corot-9b, the newest find in the cavalcade of exoplanets and the one its discoverers say is most like the worlds of our own solar system.
“Like our own giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, the planet is mostly made of hydrogen and helium,” said team member Tristan Guillot of the Côte d’Azure Observatory in Nice, France. “And it may contain up to 20 Earth masses of other elements, including water and rock at high temperatures and pressures” [Space.com]. The large group of astronomers reporting the find in Nature estimate the planet’s temperature at a range between just below zero and slightly above 300 degrees Fahrenheit. It completes an orbit in 95 days, though it’s about 1,500 light years away.
Astronomers have conclusive evidence that a planet spotted in a star system 500 light years away is rocky and solid, just like Earth. Scientists have long figured that if life begins on a planet, it needs a solid surface to rest on, so finding one elsewhere is a big deal. “We basically live on a rock ourselves,” said co-discoverer Artie Hartzes…. “It’s as close to something like the Earth that we’ve found so far. It’s just a little too close to its sun” [AP].
Yes, for while the exoplanet, Corot-7b, is rocky like Earth and is only about five times more massive than our home planet, it’s hardly our twin. Its close proximity to its star means that it completes an orbit (its “year”) in just 20 hours, and the climate extremes are punishing. Temperatures soar above 2,000 degrees on its day side and sink to minus 200 degrees on the night side. It means the surface could be covered with molten lava or boiling oceans and it certainly could not hold any form of life as we know it [Scientific American].
Four hundred years ago, Galileo observed the phases of Venus as the planet orbited our sun and caught its light in different ways, helping to disprove the idea that all celestial bodies twirled around the Earth. Now, the professional descendants of Galileo have observed the phases of an exoplanet for the first time, observing the distant planet in the act of orbiting a foreign star.
The planet, CoRoT-1b, is about 1,600 light years away from Earth, and was discovered about 2 years ago. It’s a “hot Jupiter,” a class of exoplanets that are the size of Jupiter but orbit very closely to their stars (CoRoT-1b orbits its star in just 36 hours). Hot Jupiters are expected to be tidally locked, with one side always facing their stars, the other permanently dark (our own moon is tidally locked with the Earth, only showing its “near side” to us) [SPACE.com].
While astronomers have found more than 300 planets beyond our solar system in the last 15 years, none of those “exoplanets” has been a likely candidate for extraterrestrial life. The exoplanets discovered thus far are all either too close to the hot sun or too far away and therefore too frigid to host life as we know it. But Alan Boss says it’s just a matter of time before we find Earth-like planets in the “Goldilocks zone”: he calculates that 100 billion of them may exist within our own Milky Way galaxy. And NASA’s Kepler satellite, which is expected to launch on March 5, may be the key to finding them, he says.
Boss, an astrophysicist and author of the new book “The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets,” says that if any of the billions of Earth-like worlds he believes exist in the Milky Way have liquid water, they are likely to be home to some type of life. “Now that’s not saying that they’re all going to be crawling with intelligent human beings or even dinosaurs,” he said. “But I would suspect that the great majority of them at least will have some sort of primitive life, like bacteria or some of the multicellular creatures that populated our Earth for the first 3 billion years of its existence” [CNN].
A rocky world about twice the size of Earth has been detected orbiting a sun-like star 390 light years away from our solar system. While the “super-Earth” is hot and inhospitable to life as we know it, its discovery puts researchers firmly on the path towards finding other habitable planets. “For the first time, we have unambiguously detected a planet that is ‘rocky’ in the same sense as our own Earth” [Wired News], said project scientist Malcolm Fridlund. The exciting find was made by the CoRoT satellite, which was launched by the French space agency to scan the skies for exoplanets (planets outside our solar system). The results were announced at a CoRoT symposium in Paris.
CoRoT team member Suzanne Aigrain explains that the planet is so close to its parent star that it orbits around it once every 20 hours, and is subject to inferno-like conditions. “It’s likely that there is a solid surface somewhere,” says Aigrain. But the extreme surface temperatures of around 1000°C [around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit] could mean that the planet is host to vast lava fields and boiling oceans. It also may be ‘tidally locked’ to its parent star, leaving one face bathed in constant, searing sunlight while the other is shrouded in continuous night. “It would be a very odd place to set foot on,” she says [Nature News].
A starlit sky may look serene, but those stars are actually quivering and quaking; now, researchers have recorded the stellar vibrations of distant stars for the first time. The pulsations reflect changes in temperature caused when roiling heat makes the outer surface of the star vibrate. Portions of the surface expand and cool, while others contract and get warmer [New Scientist].
The initial discovery of oscillations in our Sun in the late 1970′s led to the creation of “solar seismology,” which has since been used to measure the movement and transport of heat around the Sun. Solar seismology led to rapid progress in understanding the Sun’s internal structure, but eventually researchers hit a wall [COSMOS]. For accurate measurements, researchers need a long stretch of uninterrupted observations, which is impossible from ground-based telescopes.