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Space

+ - Smallest Exoplanet Yet Discovered

Submitted by Snowblindeye
Snowblindeye (1085701) writes "Well-known exoplanet researcher Michel Mayor today announced the discovery of the lightest exoplanet found so far. The planet, "e", in the famous system Gliese 581, is only about twice the mass of our Earth. The team also refined the orbit of the planet Gliese 581 d, first discovered in 2007, placing it well within the habitable zone, where liquid water oceans could exist.

Planet Gliese 581 e orbits its host star — located only 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra ("the Scales") — in just 3.15 days. "With only 1.9 Earth-masses, it is the least massive exoplanet ever detected and is, very likely, a rocky planet", says co-author Xavier Bonfils from Grenoble Observatory.

Being so close to its host star, the planet is not in the habitable zone. But another planet in this system appears to be. From previous observations this star was known to harbour a system with a Neptune-sized planet and two super-Earths. With the discovery of Gliese 581 e, the planetary system now has four known planets, with masses of about 1.9 (planet e), 16 (planet b), 5 (planet c), and 7 Earth-masses (planet d). The planet furthest out, Gliese 581 d, orbits its host star in 66.8 days. "Gliese 581 d is probably too massive to be made only of rocky material, but we can speculate that it is an icy planet that has migrated closer to the star," says team member Stephane Udry. The new observations have revealed that this planet is in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist. "'d' could even be covered by a large and deep ocean — it is the first serious 'water world' candidate," continued Udry."

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