Image: Planet transit
G. Bacon / NASA / ESA
An artist's impression shows a Jupiterlike planet transiting a star. The COROT spacecraft can detect such planets by measuring slight dips in a star's brightness.
By Senior science writer
updated 5/6/2007 12:10:17 AM ET 2007-05-06T04:10:17

A new European space probe has detected its first extrasolar planet, and astronomers say the satellite has the ability to find Earthlike worlds.

The COROT satellite, a joint project of France, Europe and Brazil, discovered a gas giant planet nearly twice the diameter of Jupiter orbiting a star 1,500 light-years away. The planet has been named COROT-Exo-1b. It circles a yellow dwarf star similar to our sun every 1.5 days, so it is very close to the star and therefore very hot.

COROT, which launched in December, found the planet by noting the decrease in light from a parent star when the planet crosses in front of the star. This "transit method" has been used before, but the new space mission promises more frequent detections and the ability to spot smaller worlds.

"The data we are presenting today is still raw but exceptional," said Malcolm Fridlund, COROT project scientist for the European Space Agency. "It shows that the onboard systems are working better than expected in some cases — up to 10 times the expectation before launch. This will have an enormous impact on the results of the mission."

The bottom line: Planets down to the size of Earth could be detected, and it might even be possible to probe the chemical composition of such a planet, according to a statement issued by mission officials.

A race of sorts is on.

NASA plans next year to launch the Kepler mission, a similar satellite also capable of discovery Earthlike worlds.

Astronomers have found about 230 planets beyond our own solar system. Last week a Swiss team announced the discovery of an Earthlike planet that could support liquid water, a key ingredient for life as we know it. It was found with a ground-based telescope.

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