NASA’s Revived Kepler Spacecraft Discovers Its First New Planet

Under its new K2 mission, NASA's revived Kepler spacecraft has discovered its first super-Earth exoplanet, scientists said. (PHOTO CREDIT: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle)

It doesn’t pay to bet against Kepler. Even though the NASA spacecraft was hobbled a year and a half ago, the battered telescope has still managed to find a super-Earth. At 20,000 miles across, the newly discovered planet is 2.5 times as wide as Earth and holds about 12 times the mass.

The exoplanet known as HIP 116454b, described in a paper set to be published by the Astrophysical Journal, is the first find by Kepler’s new mission, K2.

The plucky little planet-hunter was thought by some to be dead in the water when the second of its four reaction wheels broke in 2013, crippling the space telescope.

Kepler was able to pick out tiny planets by looking for dips in starlight as the silhouetted planets traveled across the bright disk of their host stars. But it could only do so by staying very still, never wobbling — and it needed at least three reaction wheels to stay in place.

With only two working wheels left, it looked like Kepler’s mission was over for good.

“Tears are coming to my eyes on and off,” UC Berkeley astrophysicist Geoff Marcy said at the time; he even wrote a farewell ode to the groundbreaking spacecraft.

But engineers at Ball Aerospace came up with a plan to use sunlight as the spacecraft’s virtual “third wheel” — the pressure from the photons (light particles) hitting the spacecraft would help to hold it in place.

Using this method, Kepler can now scan the skies for a new mission, named K2. Instead of staring into a single patch of fairly uniform stars, the spacecraft will look at a variety of targets across the night sky, including stars, proto-stars, galaxy clusters and supernovae.

Technically, the newly discovered planet didn’t actually come out of a scientific search, said study lead author Andrew Vanderburg, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“This was just an engineering test,” Vanderburg said. “It only lasted nine days, and we only looked at 2,000 stars.”

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Amina Khan

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