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French satellite to search for new planets

PARIS – The first satellite dedicated solely to seeking out new planets beyond our solar system will be launched next month, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

The French project, dubbed COROT, will send into orbit a telescope capable of detecting smaller planets than is currently possible — some maybe just a few times the size of Earth and rocky, rather than the larger, gaseous types, ESA said.

“COROT could detect so many planets of this new type, together with plenty of the old type, that astronomers will be able to make statistical studies of them,” Malcolm Fridlund, ESA’s project scientist for COROT, said in a statement.

That would enable scientists to make predictions of the number and type of planets orbiting a given star, said ESA, which is participating in the project.

Planets have been found orbiting stars other than the sun but they have never been seen. Instead, scientists have deduced they are there based on the stars’ “wobble,” the result of the gravitational pull of planets revolving around them.

COROT, a project of the French National Space Studies Center (CNES), will be able to detect smaller, rocky planets by using a different method.

It will measure the light emitted by a star and detect the drop in brightness caused when a planet passes in front it.

Like the larger planets found so far, however, these new ones will have to be orbiting close to their star.

The satellite is due to be launched on December 21.

In 2008, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is due to launch the first space telescope capable of detecting Earth-sized planets in similar orbits to ours, ESA said.