A Neptune-sized exoplanet orbiting a small star about 33 light years away could be a key stepping stone on the path to making sense of an Earth twin.

The finding is the latest advance in the quest to measure Earth-like planets that could possibly host signs of life, which researchers expect to find in the next few years.

"GJ 436b is the smallest exoplanet whose direct light we've been able to measure," said Kevin Stevenson, the University of Central Florida's first planetary sciences doctoral student and lead author of the study, which will be published Thursday, April 22, in Nature.

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