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Press Release 09-241

Waterworld Discovered Transiting a Nearby Star

Charbonneau team realizes major advance in discovering habitable planets

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Artist's conception of a super-Earth orbiting GJ1214, a nearby star, 40 light years away.

Artist's conception of the super-Earth discovered orbiting GJ1214, a dim red dwarf star located 40 light-years away. GJ1214b was found by the MEarth project, which uses off-the-shelf amateur technology to spot transiting exoplanets. GJ1214b is about 2.7 times the size of Earth and weighs 6.5 times as much. Models suggest it is made of about three-fourths water and one-fourth rock. Observations suggest that it also has a substantial hydrogen/helium atmosphere.

Credit: David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA


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Astronomer David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics briefed journalists on an embargoed basis before his team's major discovery was published in the December 17 issue of the journal Nature. They discovered a "super-Earth" orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. They found the distant planet with a small fleet of ground-based telescopes no larger than those many amateur astronomers have in their backyards. Although the super-Earth is too hot to sustain life as we know it, the discovery shows that current, ground-based technologies are capable of finding almost-Earth-sized planets in warm, life-friendly orbits. Charbonneau was NSF's 2009 Alan T. Waterman Awardee.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

 

Photo of the MEarth telescopes at Mt. Hopkins, Arizona.

Photo of the MEarth telescopes at Mt. Hopkins, Arizona.

Credit: Dan Brocious, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA


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