Astronomers have measured the passing of a super-Earth in front of a bright, nearby Sun-like star using a ground-based telescope for the first time. The transit of the exoplanet 55 Cancri e is the shallowest detected from the ground yet. Since detecting a transit is the first step in analyzing a planet's atmosphere, this success bodes well for characterizing the many small planets that upcoming space missions are expected to discover in the next few years. The international research team used the 2.5-meter Nordic Optical Telescope on the island of La Palma, Spain, a moderate-sized facility by today's standards but equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, to make the detection. Previous observations of this planet transit had to rely on space-borne telescopes.
The host star, 55 Cancri, is located just 40 light-years away from us and is visible to the naked eye. During its transit, the planet crosses 55 Cancri and blocks a tiny fraction of the starlight, dimming the star by 1/2000th (or 0.05%) for almost two hours. This shows that the planet is about twice...
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