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Found: Firm place to stand outside solar system


Sep 16, 10:08 am ET

WASHINGTON – Astronomers have finally found a place outside our solar system where there's a firm place to stand — if only it weren't so broiling hot.

As scientists search the skies for life elsewhere, they have found more than 300 planets outside our solar system. But they all have been gas balls or can't be proven 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 a big deal.

"We basically live on a rock ourselves," said co-discoverer Artie Hatzes, 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."

So close that its surface temperature is more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, too toasty to sustain life. It circles its star in just 20 hours, zipping around at 466,000 mph. By comparison, Mercury, the planet nearest our sun, completes its solar orbit in 88 days.

"It's hot, they're calling it the lava planet," Hatzes 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 finding an Earth-like planet outside our solar system, held in Barcelona, Spain, where the discovery was presented Wednesday morning. The find is also being published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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