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'Godzilla of Earths': Mega-Earth exoplanet largest yet found, could harbor life

Astronomers have found an oddly shocking combination of attributes in distant exoplanet Kepler-10c: It is massive; it's rocky; and it's very old. But added to those interesting characteristics is a potentiality that really grabs scientists' attention -- the fact that the massive planet circling a star in the Draco constellation just might have what it takes to support extraterrestrial life.

Space.com reported (via Yahoo News) June 2 that Kepler-10c, which revolves around a sun-like star some 560 light years from our world, is a massive planet and quite the anomaly. Its size presented astronomers with a problem in 2011 when it was discovered, because it was then believed that a planet so massive -- it is 17 times heavier than Earth and has been dubbed a "mega-Earth" to distinguish it from a mere "super-Earth" -- could not be very old or non-gaseous. Such a large world would have attracted plenty of hydrogen and took on the dimensions of planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, astronomers thought. But Kepler-10c didn't fit the standard model at all.

"This is the Godzilla of Earths!" said Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, in a statement. "But unlike the movie monster, Kepler-10c has positive implications for life."

Conditions would have to be just so, but it is possible that Kepler-10c might be home to alien life forms. However, the odds might be against it since it is so close to its sun, orbiting its parent star every 45 days. Still, given its Earth-like attributes, a dense atmosphere could compensate for the nearness to the star and what would amount to a corresponding elevated temperature of about 590 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Guardian.

"Finding Kepler-10c tells us that rocky planets could form much earlier than we thought," Sasselov stated. "And if you can make rocks, you can make life."

Scientists also believe that Kepler-10c is extremely old, forming about 3 billion years after the Big Bang. That would make it roughly 6 billion years older than Earth (which is estimated to be approximately 4.5 billion years old). Such an old Earth-like planet indicates that older stars could host planets favorable to producing alien life, thus increasing the parameters of search for habitable exoplanets.

The findings were presented Monday (June 2) at the American Astronomical Society in Boston. These included planetary measurements made with instruments on the Italian National Galileo Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Kepler-10c has a sister world, Kepler-10b, a planet even closer to the parent star that clocks a year a 20 days. This world is believed to be so hot its surface is nothing but molten lava.