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Space Science

Astronomers Find Planet Barely Larger Than Earth's Moon 71

Posted by Soulskill
from the that's-no-planet dept.
The Bad Astronomer writes "A team of astronomers has announced the discovery of the smallest exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star yet found: Kepler-37b, which has a diameter of only 3865 kilometers — smaller than Mercury, and only a little bigger than our own Moon. It was found using the transit method; as it orbits its star, it periodically blocks a bit of the starlight, revealing its presence (abstract). Interestingly, the planet has been known for some time, but only new advances in asteroseismology (studying oscillations in the star itself) have allowed the star's size to be accurately found, which in turn yielded a far better determination of the planet's diminutive size. Also, the asteroseismology research was not funded by NASA, but instead crowd funded by a non-profit, which raised money by letting people adopt Kepler target stars."
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Astronomers Find Planet Barely Larger Than Earth's Moon

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  • by Nadaka (224565) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @04:59PM (#42958825)

    because the determining factor in excluding Pluto from the list of planets is not its size, it is that it has not cleared its orbit of other bodies.

  • by medcalf (68293) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @05:12PM (#42958929) Homepage
    Not really. "Cleared its orbit" doesn't mean no co-orbital objects. All planets have LaGrange point co-orbitals for example. Pluto is different in that it has a lot of co-orbitals, and some of them are almost as large as Pluto itself. Essentially, it's a KBO rather than a planet proper, by the current definition.
  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday February 20, 2013 @05:54PM (#42959517) Homepage

    Pluto is different in that it has a lot of co-orbitals, and some of them are almost as large as Pluto itself.

    To make it clear how big a difference it is, let's look at the ratio of the mass of the body in question to the mass of the rest of the objects in its orbit (discounting direct satellites).

    Of the planets Neptune happens to have the lowest such ratio. It outmasses everything else in its orbit by a factor of over 10,000.

    Meanwhile Pluto is outmassed by the other objects in its orbit by more than a factor of ten. It is less than 10% of the mass in its orbit.

    That's a five order of magnitude difference. "Clearing the orbit" isn't precisely defined... and it doesn't need to be. You don't need a precise definition of where exactly on the beach the ocean begins to know that Asia and North America are separated by the Pacific Ocean.

    And I suspect that such a large distinction isn't a cosmic accident, and that other star systems of sufficient age will show a similar trend. Unfortunately it's going to be a long time before we can test this hypothesis.

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