(CN) — Experts unveiled on Thursday a detailed look into the most recently discovered exoplanet, dubbed GJ 367b, that represents the next step forward in mankind’s search for a so-called “second Earth.”
For decades, astrophysicists and other star-searchers have been combing the cosmos for evidence of planets that strike some key resemblances with Earth. This has put them on a hunt for extrasolar planets, commonly referred to as exoplanets, which are planetary bodies that orbit stars outside our own solar system.
While the search for the perfect “second Earth” is still ongoing, researchers have revealed the first detailed look at the newest discovered exoplanet that they believe will bring the search one step closer to success.
In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, experts led by Kristine W. F. Lam and Szilárd Csizmadia from the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center unveiled a host of new information on the newly discovered body, GJ 367b.
Upon inspection, experts determined two crucial characteristics that immediately set it apart from other types of exoplanets: it’s uncommonly lightweight and extremely fast. While it has a diameter that puts it just a little larger than Mars, its mass is only half of that of Earth’s, making it one of the lightest of the nearly 5000 exoplanets ever discovered.
At least in part due to this small mass, it’s also quite speedy. While it normally takes planetary bodies a sizeable chunk of time to make a complete orbit around their star (Mars, for instance, takes nearly 700 days to make a trip around our sun) GJ 367b is capable of making the entire journey in just a third of an Earth day, about eight hours.
Experts say this speed puts the new planet in the “ultra-short period” (USP) classification of exoplanets, which are bodies that can make the entire trip around their sun in less than 24 hours. While researchers already knew that these types of planets existed, where exactly they came from remains a mystery.
“We already know a few of these, but their origins are currently unknown,” Lam said with the release of the study. “By measuring the precise fundamental properties of the USP planet, we can get a glimpse of the system’s formation and evolution history.”
Despite the fact that the star rests around 31 light years away, researchers were even able to uncover a few revelations about the planet’s inner-workings.
Using powerful tools from the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6m telescope and a myriad of evaluation methods, scientists were able to accurately gauge the planet’s radius at around 72% of Earth’s and a mass of 55% of Earth’s.
These measurements told experts that while the planet has a low mass, it is in fact much denser than Earth and therefore is likely to command a massive iron core in the planet’s heart.
“The high density indicates the planet is dominated by an iron core,” Csizmadia said. “These properties are similar to those of Mercury, with its disproportionately large iron and nickel core that differentiates it from other terrestrial bodies in the Solar System.”
Though these characteristics might suggest that GJ 367b bears enough in common with Earth to be classified as an elusive “second Earth” planet, think again. The planet orbits extremely close to its sun, subjecting it to radiation levels nearly 500 times more power than anything experienced on Earth. This means that surface temperatures on GJ 367b can reach up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit — conditions under which nearly all known metals and rock would melt.
While the new exoplanet isn’t quite up to snuff in being classified as an official second Earth, its size and physical characteristics still put it squarely in the “sub-Earth” zone and brings scientists one step closer to finding their perfect second Earth candidate.
“From the precise determination of its radius and mass, GJ 367b is classified as a rocky planet,” Lam said. “It seems to have similarities to Mercury. This places it among the sub-Earth sized terrestrial planets and brings research one step forward in the search for a ‘second Earth’.”
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