NASA’s Kepler makes a comeback by discovering new super-Earth

A new research has revealed that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft proved that it can still find planets. Despite a malfunction that ended its primary mission in May 2013, Kepler is still alive and working and the evidence comes from the discovery of a new super-Earth using data collected during Kepler’s “second life.”

Lead author Andrew Vanderburg said that like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries, even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies.

Kepler spacecraft detects planets by looking for transits, when a star dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it and it’s primary mission came to an end when the second of four reaction wheels used to stabilize the spacecraft failed. Without at least three functioning reaction wheels, Kepler couldn’t be pointed accurately.

Rather than giving up on the plucky spacecraft, a team of scientists and engineers developed an ingenious strategy to use pressure from sunlight as a virtual reaction wheel to help control the spacecraft. The resulting second mission, K2, promises to not only continue Kepler’s search for other worlds, but also introduce new opportunities to observe star clusters, active galaxies, and supernovae.

Kepler’s new life began with a 9-day test in February 2014 and when Vanderburg and his colleagues analyzed that data, they found that Kepler had detected a single planetary transit.

They confirmed the discovery of the planet, HIP 116454b, which has a diameter of 20,000 miles, two and a half times the size of Earth and weighs almost 12 times as much as Earth. This makes HIP 116454b a super-Earth, a class of planets that doesn’t exist in our solar system. The average density suggests that this planet is either a water world (composed of about three-fourths water and one-fourth rock) or a mini-Neptune with an extended, gaseous atmosphere.

This close-in planet circles its star once every 9.1 days at a distance of 8.4 million miles. Its host star is a type K orange dwarf slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. The system is 180 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.

The research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.