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September 17, 2009

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Standing room only; it's just not on Earth

ASTRONOMERS finally have found a place outside Earth's solar system where there is a firm place to stand on, if only it were not so hot.

As scientists search the skies for life elsewhere, they have found more than 300 planets outside the solar system, but they all have been gas balls or cannot be proved to be solid. Now a team of European astronomers has confirmed the first rocky extrasolar planet.

Scientists have long figured that if life begins on a planet, it needs a solid surface to rest on, so finding one elsewhere is significant.

"We basically live on a rock ourselves," said co-discoverer Artie Hartzes, director of the Thuringer observatory in Germany. "It's as close to something like the Earth that we've found so far. It's just a little too close to its sun."

It is so close to its sun that it is more than 1,980 degrees Celsius, unable to sustain life. It circles its star in just 20 hours, zipping around at 749,920 kilometers per hour. "It's hot; they're calling it the lava planet," Hartzes said.

This is a major discovery in the field of trying to find life elsewhere in the universe, said outside expert Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution.

It was the buzz of a conference on the issue in Barcelona, Spain, where it was presented yesterday.

It also is being published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The planet is called Corot-7b. It was discovered this year, then European scientists watched it dozens of times to measure its density to prove that it is rocky, like Earth.

It is in Earth's general neighborhood, circling a star in the winter sky about 500 light years away. Each light year is about 9.7 trillion kilometers.

Four planets in our solar system are rocky: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Now that another rocky planet has been found so close to its own star, it gives scientists more confidence that they will find more Earth-like planets farther away, where conditions could be more favorable to life, Boss said.


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