An international team of astronomers has used nearly three years of high precision data from NASA's Kepler spacecraft to make the first observations of a planet outside our solar system that’s smaller than Mercury, the smallest planet orbiting our sun.
The planet is about the size of the Earth's moon. It is one of three planets orbiting a star designated Kepler-37 in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way. "Owing to its extremely small size, similar to that of the Earth’s moon, and highly irradiated surface, Kepler-37b is very likely a rocky planet with no atmosphere or water, similar to Mercury," the astronomers wrote in a summary of their findings. "The detection of such a small planet shows for the first time that stellar systems host planets much smaller as well as much larger than anything we see in our own Solar System."
The planet orbits too close to its sun-like star and thus is too hot to support life--its surface temperature is an estimated 700 degrees Fahrenheit. It also lacks an atmosphere and water on its rocky surface. It's been almost 20 years since the first planet was found outside our solar system. Since then, thanks to Kepler (which was launched in 2009), astronomers have discovered more and more of them: over 800 so far.
On the ABC News website, Alicia Chang quotes astronomer Geoff Marcy as saying that the latest find is "absolutely mind-boggling. This new discovery raises the specter that the universe is jampacked, like jelly beans in a jar, with planets even smaller than Earth."
Meanwhile, giant telescopes like the one now being built in Chile could hunt for alien life by detecting oxygen on exoplanets. On Earth, plants and some bacteria are the only sources of large amounts of atmospheric oxygen. Finding oxygen on an exoplanet would therefore signal the possibility of life as we know it.
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