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A one-in-a-million discovery: Scientists spot 'incredibly rare' super-Earth

Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

Another day, another super-Earth? Not so fast. This one really is special.

Calling it "incredibly rare," New Zealand astronomers say the planet "is one of only a handful that have been discovered with both size and orbit comparable to that of Earth," according to a statement.

The research about the discovery was published recently in a study in the Astronomical Journal.

How does this distant world and its star compare to our neighborhood? According to the study, the super-Earth's host star is about 10% the mass of our sun, and the planet would have a mass somewhere between that of Earth and Neptune.

It would also orbit its star at a location between Venus and Earth. 

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As for life or water, however, study authors say we should not get our hopes up: "Although it’s not too much bigger than Earth, and orbiting its star at a similar distance, this planet would be very cold because its star is smaller than the sun and emits much less light,"  study co-author Michael Abrow of New Zealand's University of Canterbury told USA TODAY.

"Water could not exist in a liquid state, and the likelihood of life would be very low," he said. "Only a very few planets have been detected that may have suitable conditions for life."

Another difference: Because the host star has a smaller mass than our sun, the planet would have a "year" of about 617 days.

Study lead author Antonia Herrera-Martin, also of the University of Canterbury, said the planet was discovered using a technique called gravitational microlensing.

“The combined gravity of the planet and its host star caused the light from a more distant background star to be magnified in a particular way," he said. "We used telescopes distributed around the world to measure the light-bending effect.”

The microlensing effect is rare, he said: Only about one in a million stars in the galaxy are affected at any given time.

In addition, this type of observation does not repeat, and the probabilities of catching a planet at the same time are extremely low, Martin said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Super-Earth: Scientists spot rare planet near center of galaxy