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Kepler Telescope Finds a ‘Super-Earth’ 180 Light-years Away

Kepler Telescope Finds a ‘Super-Earth’ 180 Light-years Away

Since it was launched in 2009, the Kepler space telescope has found nearly 1,000 planets in distant solar systems. However, in May 2013, the spacecraft was temporarily shut down due to a hardware malfunction. In May 2014, NASA scientists devised a solution and turned it back on — and Thursday, they announced the telescope has found yet another exoplanet.

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University of Hawaiʻi astronomer Christoph Baranec supplied confirming data with his Robo-AO instrument mounted on the Palomar 1.5-meter telescope, and former UH graduate student Brendan Bowler, now a Joint Center for Planetary Astronomy postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, provided additional confirming observations using the Keck II adaptive optics system on Maunakea.

HIP 116454b, the new exoplanet, 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. It circles its host star, an orange dwarf slightly smaller and cooler than the sun, once every 9.1 days at a distance of 8.4 million miles. 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 artist's portrays the first planet discovered by the Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission. Located 180 light-years from Earth, toward the constellation Pisces, the planet is too hot for life as we know it

This artist’s portrays the first planet discovered by the Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission. Located 180 light-years from Earth, toward the constellation Pisces, the planet is too hot for life as we know it

The Kepler spacecraft detects planets by looking for planets that transit, or cross in front of, their star as seen from the vantage of Earth. During the transit, the star’s light dims slightly. The smaller the planet, the weaker the dimming, so brightness measurements must be exquisitely precise. To enable that precision, the spacecraft must maintain a steady pointing.

Kepler’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 promises to not only continue Kepler’s search for other worlds, but also introduce new opportunities to observe star clusters, active galaxies, and supernovae.

Lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and his colleagues developed specialized software to correct for spacecraft movements, achieving about half the photometric precision of the original Kepler mission. The resulting second mission, K2, detected HIP 116454b, 180 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.

Technically, the newly discovered planet didn’t actually come out of a scientific search, said Andrew Vanderburg. “This was just an engineering test,”. “It only lasted nine days, and we only looked at 2,000 stars.” In a standard science campaign, they’d look for 80 to 90 days at about 30,000 stars, he added.

“So this was actually a bit of a lucky find,” Vanderburg said. “Of those few stars that they looked at, it just happened to transit once during the time they observed.” But even with the sun acting as the “third wheel,” Kepler is still more wobbly than it used to be. So the researchers had to develop complex software that could correct for that predictable jitter, Vanderburg said. In the end, the researchers were able to reach about half the exquisite pointing precision of the original Kepler mission.

Since the K2 mission officially began in May, Kepler has observed more than 35,000 stars and collected data on several planetary objects within the solar system.

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