Astronomers have discovered an extrasolar planet only three times more massive than our own, the smallest yet observed orbiting a normal star. The star itself is not large, perhaps as little as one twentieth the mass of our Sun, suggesting to the research team that relatively common low-mass stars may present good candidates for hosting Earth-like planets.
The astronomers used a technique called gravitational microlensing (1) to find the planet, a method that can potentially find planets one-tenth the mass of our own.
The gravitational microlensing technique, which came from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, relies upon observations of stars that brighten when an object such as another star passes directly in front of them (relative to an observer, in this case on Earth). The gravity of the passing star acts as a lens, much like a giant magnifying glass. If a planet is orbiting the passing star, its presence is revealed in the way the background star brightens. A full explanation of the technique follows this release.