A tiny world of molten rock, orbiting scorchingly close to its host star, is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system, NASA announced today. And it's likely only the first in a parade of planet discoveries to be announced this spring by the Kepler Space Telescope team.
Researchers have confirmed six new planets beyond our solar system, the prelude to an avalanche of exoplanet discoveries soon to cascade from NASA's Kepler mission.
There's more to come -- on Tuesday, NASA's Kepler space telescope team released data from 156,000 stars, including a list of more than 700 stars that likely harbor planets, meaning hundreds of new exoplanet discoveries are imminent.
Astronomers will use ground-based telescopes to do follow-up observations on those stars. The 28-member Kepler team is keeping some of the juiciest stars for itself, however -- actually common practice in space telescope circles, but a decision that has sparked some controversy.
Humans tend to imagine things we don't fully understand in our own image: for instance, we anthropomorphize God, most sci-fi movie aliens are some variation of a biped with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, and every planet Captain Kirk visits has an atmosphere just ripe for human respiration. But science tells us things are rarely so neat and tidy out in the great unknown, and just to prove how weird things can be out there, scientists at Washington University St.