Monday, February 9, 2009

Smallest Transiting Extrasolar Planet Found

Scientists have 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 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. "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. link