Exoplanet Neighbor is Smaller than Earth

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Astronomers believe they have found a planet about two-thirds the size of Earth orbiting a star 33 light-years away, a virtual neighbor in cosmic terms.

Don’t pack your suitcase yet. The planet, known as UCF-1.01, is not very hospitable, with temperatures that exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a surface that may be volcanic or molten and little if any atmosphere.

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It’s not just a summer heat wave. For UCF-1.01, it’s a way of life. The planet is located so close to its parent star, a red dwarf known as GJ 436, that it completes an orbit in 1.4 Earth days.

Astronomers were following up studies of a Neptune-sized world already known to be orbiting GJ 436 when they realized there may be one — or even two — additional planets in the system.

Confirmation, however, will require telescopes more sensitive than what is currently available.

The studies were conducted with NASA’s Spitzer infrared space telescope, which recorded slight, regular dips in the amount of light coming from the star. This phenomenon could be due to a planet passing in front of its parent star, relative to the telescope’s view.

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NASA’s Kepler space telescope uses this technique to look for so-called transiting planets. The smaller the planet, however, the more difficult the search.

Of Kepler’s 1,800 candidate planet-hosting stars, only three have been confirmed to have worlds smaller than Earth and just one is believed to be smaller than Spitzer’s potential find.

The research, led by University of Central Florida Ph.D graduate student Kevin Stevenson, will be published Thursday in The Astrophysical Journal.

Image: Artist’s rendering of suspected exoplanet UCF-1.01. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt