First Earth-Like Planet Spotted Outside Solar System Likely a Volcanic Wasteland

Earth-like planet outside our solar system

How similar is exoplanet CoRoT-7b to Earth? The newly discovered extra-solar planet (depicted in the above artist’s illustration) is the closest physical match yet, with a mass about five Earths and a radius of about 1.7 Earths. Also, the home star to CoRoT-7b, although 500 light years distant, is very similar to our Sun. Unfortunately, the similarities likely end there, as CoRoT-7b orbits its home star well inside the orbit of Mercury, making its year last only 20 hours, and making its peak temperature much hotter than humans might find comfortable. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada

Rocky planets — Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars — make up half the planets in our solar system. Rocky planets are considered better environments to support life than planets that are mainly gaseous, like the other half of the planets in our system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The rocky planet CoRoT-7 b was discovered circling a star some 480 light years from Earth. It is, however, a forbidding place and unlikely to harbor life. That’s because it is so close to its star that temperatures might be above 4,000 degrees F (2,200 C) on the surface lit by its star and as low as minus 350 F (minus 210 C) on its dark side.

Now scientists led by a University of Washington astronomer say that if CoRoT-7 b’s orbit is not almost perfectly circular, then the planet might also be undergoing fierce volcanic eruptions. It could be even more volcanically active than Jupiter’s moon Io, which has more than 400 volcanoes and is the most geologically active object in our solar system.

“If conditions are what we speculate, then CoRoT-7 b could have multiple volcanoes going off continuously and magma flowing all over the surface,” says Rory Barnes, a UW postdoctoral researcher of astronomy and astrobiology. Any planet where the surface is being remade at such a rate is a place nearly impossible for life to get a foothold, he says.

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What is that cloud of interstellar material? Mystery at the edge of our Solar System solved

Voyager Monster artist rendering

Artist’s rendering of the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it studies the outer limits of the heliosphere — a magnetic ‘bubble’ around the Solar System that is created by the solar wind. Scientists observed the magnetic bubble is not spherical, but pressed inward in the southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL

Our solar system is passing through a cloud of interstellar material that shouldn’t be there, astronomers say. And now the decades-old Voyager spacecraft has helped solved the mystery.

The cloud is called the “Local Fluff.” It’s about 30 light-years wide and holds a wispy mix of hydrogen and helium atoms, according to a NASA statement released today. Stars that exploded nearby, about 10 million years ago, should have crushed the Fluff or blown it away.

So what’s holding the Fluff in place?

“Using data from Voyager, we have discovered a strong magnetic field just outside the solar system,” explained Merav Opher, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from George Mason University. “This magnetic field holds the interstellar cloud together [“The Fluff”] and solves the long-standing puzzle of how it can exist at all.”

The Fluff is much more strongly magnetized than anyone had previously suspected,” Opher said. “This magnetic field can provide the extra pressure required to resist destruction.”

Opher and colleagues detail the discovery in the Dec. 24 issue of the journal Nature.

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