A literally astronomical breakthrough has been made possible thanks to the help of an Ulster-based academic.
Dr Chris Watson from Queen’s University Belfast is part of a three-man UK team which has been attempting to “weigh” a distant, roughly Earth-sized planet.
According to Queen’s, the planet (known as Kepler-78b) is now smallest one outside our own solar system for which an accurate radius and mass is known.
The findings were published this week in the prestigious journal Nature.
Kepler-78b is just 20 per cent bigger than Earth and has a similar composition.
But it would not make a particularly inviting destination.
Dr Watson, from the university’s Astrophysics Research Centre, called it “a scorching lava world that, put simply, shouldn’t exist.”
It is a highly improbable planet, he said, because its odd orbit keeps it extremely close to its host star - a feature which has bewildered observers.
By taking a complex series of readings, he and his team were able to determine as best they could the weight, size and composition of the planet, despite it being roughly 400 light years from the Earth.
Dr Watson’s UK team was part of a wider international effort to learn about the peculiar, far-flung world.