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Earth-size rocky planet is a hot mess

Astronomers locate a rare Earth-size rocky planet outside of our solar system, but it's not very hospitable.

Kepler-78b and star art
An artist's concept of Kepler-78b with its star.
Karen Teramura/University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy

Kepler-78b might seem kind of familiar. It's one of only a few planets scientists have found that are about the same size as Earth. It has a rocky makeup like Earth as well. But we won't be building leisure colonies on it anytime soon. Our doppelganger is rocking some hellish temperatures.

The planet was pinpointed thanks to NASA's Kepler space telescope. Two different research teams took on the task of ferreting out some of the details on the planet, and both have published papers this week about the discovery in the same issue of the Nature journal.

One paper is titled, "A rocky composition for an Earth-sized exoplanet," while the other is "Extrasolar planets: An infernal Earth." The two teams coordinated with each other, and their independent results corroborated the findings.

Kepler-78b, which is a little larger than Earth, travels around its host star every 8.5 hours, which explains the molten temperatures on the surface. It presents a considerable mystery about how it was created and how it got so close to its star.

"We don't know how it formed or how it got to where it is today. What we do know is that it's not going to last forever," said David Latham, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer. The planet will eventually be shredded by its star.

Though life as we know it isn't possible on Kepler-78b, its discovery is a positive sign for scientists who are getting better and better at measuring smaller planets in far-flung reaches of space. "This bodes well for the broader goal of one day finding evidence of life beyond Earth," said Natalie Batalha, a Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center.