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5 December 2013 11:26 am ,
Vol. 342 ,
Researchers have been hot on the trail of the elusive Denisovans, a type of ancient human known only by their DNA and...
Thousands of scientists in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) are about to lose their jobs as a result of the...
Dyslexia, a learning disability that hinders reading, hasn't been associated with deficits in vision, hearing, or...
Exotic, elusive, and dangerous, snakes have fascinated humankind for millennia. They can be hard to find, yet their...
Researchers have sequenced and analyzed the first two snake genomes, which represent two evolutionary extremes. The...
Snake venoms are remarkably complex mixtures that can stun or kill prey within minutes. But more and more researchers...
At age 30, Dutch biologist Freek Vonk has built up a respectable career as a snake scientist. But in his home country,...
Since arriving on the island of Guam in the 1940s, the brown tree snake ( Boiga irregularis ) has extirpated native...
- 5 December 2013 11:26 am , Vol. 342 , #6163
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Smallest Extrasolar Planet Portends Other Earths
2 June 2008 (All day)
When it comes to planets outside our solar system, smaller is better. That's because smaller planets are more likely to resemble Earth. So the discovery of the smallest known extrasolar planet, announced today at the June meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, Missouri, comes as good news. "It gives us hope of finding lots of habitable planets," says astronomer Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was not involved in the discovery.
The detection comes courtesy of a technique called microlensing. Employed by consortia that operate global networks of telescopes (the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment and Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics), microlensing allows continuous monitoring for subtle brightening of far-distant stars as a relatively nearby star passes in front of them. The nearer star's gravity can slightly bend--or lens--the background star's light toward Earth, temporarily brightening it. If a planet circling the nearer star also lines up and bends some starlight, the network picks up a secondary brightening.
At the meeting, astronomer David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, speaking for the consortia, announced the microlensing discovery of a planet just three times the mass of Earth. Most of the 300 or so known extrasolar planets are many times the mass of Jupiter, or thousands of times the mass of Earth. The newly discovered planet, which the team is referring to as MOA-2007-BLG-192L, orbits its star at 70% of the sun-Earth distance. That means the planet probably formed with lots of ice and gases, Bennett said, more like Neptune in composition than Earth.
The planet's host star is small as well. At roughly 6% the mass of our sun, the star is probably too small to sustain fusion reactions in its core, said Bennett, making it a dimly glowing brown dwarf.
Bennett said the microlensing technique holds promise for finding planets even closer in size to Earth. What's more, he noted, future orbiting telescopes may be able to image a planet distinct from its star and therefore search for signs of life.