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First Solid Evidence For A Rocky Exoplanet

First Solid Evidence For A Rocky Exoplanet

The longest set of HARPS measurements ever made has firmly established the nature of the smallest and fastest-orbiting exoplanet known, CoRoT-7b, revealing its mass as five times that of Earth's.

Combined with CoRoT-7b's known radius, which is less than twice that of our terrestrial home, this tells us that the exoplanet's density is quite similar to the Earth's, suggesting a solid, rocky world.

The extensive dataset also reveals the presence of another so-called super-Earth in this alien solar system.

"This is science at its thrilling and amazing best," says Didier Queloz, leader of the team that made the observations. "We did everything we could to learn what the object discovered by the CoRoT satellite looks like and we found a unique system."

In February 2009, the discovery by the CoRoT satellite [1] of a small exoplanet around a rather unremarkable star named TYC 4799-1733-1 was announced one year after its detection and after several months of painstaking measurements with many telescopes on the ground, including several from ESO.

The star, now known as CoRoT-7, is located towards the constellation of Monoceros (the Unicorn) at a distance of about 500 light-years. Slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun, CoRoT-7 is also thought to be younger, with an age of about 1.5 billion years.

Every 20.4 hours, the planet eclipses a small fraction of the light of the star for a little over one hour by one part in 3000 [2]. This planet, designated CoRoT-7b, is only 2.5 million kilometres away from its host star, or 23 times closer than Mercury is to the Sun. It has a radius that is about 80% greater than the Earth's.

The initial set of measurements, however, could not provide the mass of the exoplanet. Such a result requires extremely precise measurements of the velocity of the star, which is pulled a tiny amount by the gravitational tug of the orbiting exoplanet.

The problem with CoRoT-7b is that these tiny signals are blurred by stellar activity in the form of "starspots" (just like sunspots on our Sun), which are cooler regions on the surface of the star. Therefore, the main signal is linked to the rotation of the star, with makes one complete revolution in about 23 days.

To get an answer, astronomers had to call upon the best exoplanet-hunting device in the world, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph attached to the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.


"The exoplanet Corot-7b is so close to its Sun-like host star that it must experience extreme conditions. This planet has a mass five times that of Earth's and is in fact the closest known exoplanet to its host star, which also makes it the fastest; it orbits its star at a speed of more than 750,000 kilometers per hour. The probable temperature on its "day-face" is above 2,000 degrees, but minus 200 degrees on its night face. Theoretical models suggest that the planet may have lava or boiling oceans on its surface. Our artist has provided an impression of how it may look like if it were covered by lava. The sister planet, Corot-7c, is seen in the distance. (Credit: ESO/L. Calcada)"

Source: ESO

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