Astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet outside the solar system that has a rocky composition like that of Earth. Kepler-78b whizzes around its host star every 8.5 hours, making it a blazing inferno and not suitable for life as we know it.

Two independent research teams then used ground-based telescopes to confirm and characterize Kepler-78b. To determine the planet's mass, the teams employed the radial velocity method to measure how much the gravitation tug of an orbiting planet causes its star to wobble. Kepler, on the other hand, determines the size or radius of a planet by the amount of starlight blocked when it passes in front of its host star.

A handful of planets the size or mass of Earth have been discovered. Kepler-78b is the first to have both a measured mass and size. With both quantities known, scientists can calculate a density and determine what the planet is made of.

Kepler-78b is 1.2 times the size of Earth and 1.7 times more massive, resulting in a density that is the same as Earth's. This suggests that Kepler-78b is also made primarily of rock and iron. Its star is slightly smaller and less massive than the sun and is located about 400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.


David A. Aguilar, CfA