February 3, 2009

Smallest terrestrial exoplanet discovered

The European Space Agency says the COROT space telescope has found the smallest terrestrial planet ever detected outside the solar system.

The ESA said the newly discovered exoplanet is less than twice the size of Earth and orbits a sun-like star. Its temperature is so high -- approximately 2,000 degrees or more Fahrenheit -- it is possibly covered in lava or water vapor.

This discovery is a very important step on the road to understanding the formation and evolution of our planet, said Malcolm Fridlund, an ESA COROT project scientist. For the first time, we have unambiguously detected a planet that is 'rocky' in the same sense as our own Earth. We now have to understand this object further to put it into context and continue our search for smaller, more Earth-like objects with COROT.

The COROT satellite mission -- launched in December 2006 -- is led by the French Space Agency, with contributions from the ESA, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Brazil.

The discovery is to be detailed in a future issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.