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One small planet with big consequences

Recent discovery of new Earth-like planets outside our Solar System is crucial to the search for extraterrestrial life, says Copenhagen astronomer

The discovery of the planet Kepler-10b, orbiting a distant star, is one step towards answering the question of whether or not there is life outside our planet.

This is according to Lars Buchhave, researcher at the Dark Cosmology Center, University of Copenhagen. He was one of the authors of an article on the discovery of Kepler-10b, announced 3 January, and talked to the University Post before leaving for a trip to the astronomical observatory in La Palma, Canary Islands.

For the first time, a planet was observed outside the Solar System, rocky, that is around the same size as the Earth.

These are two essential conditions for life, although Kepler-10b is far from being habitable because of its surface temperature of 1560 °C (see fact box right) . The article has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

Looking for close encounters

Lars is not new to the field. During his Master’s thesis, in 1999, he witnessed the discovery of the first transiting extra-solar (outside our solar system) planet.

A transiting extra-solar planet is one which periodically blocks part of the light emitted by its parent star. This happens when its orbit brings it in front of the star. As a result, dark spots on the star surface can be observed.

»I have always found the subject of life in the Universe extremely fascinating. The study of extra-solar planets might eventually lead to the discovery of signs of life outside of our own Earth,« he says.

A lucky strike

In the last 15 years, more than 500 extra-solar planets have been detected, but most of them are Jupiter-size giants made of gas, where no known living organism could survive.

Until now, only two other small planets have shown similar characteristics to Earth. The scientific community is therefore excited about the discovery of Kepler-10b.

»A question we hope to answer within the near future is whether the Earth is a unique type of planet in our galaxy, and if conditions for life as we know it are common or not,« Lars adds.

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