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New Exoplanet Discovery Marks Kepler Mission Reboot

Dec 19, 2014 03:40 PM EST

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler telescope finally had an opportunity to prove its worth after it recently discovered a brand-new exoplanet. This is after the spacecraft telescope saw difficulties just last year that forced it to abandon its initial mission.

"Last summer, the possibility of a scientifically productive mission for Kepler after its reaction wheel failure in its extended mission was not part of the conversation," Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics division director, said in a statement.

He's talking about how Kepler's initial $600 million mission to search for watery Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars was indefinitely put on hold in 2013, after it lost function in the second of four gyroscopic positioning wheels - three are needed for precision pointing. And with the craft launched into space back in 2009, repairs were out of the question.

However, back in May, talk of repurposing the craft, harnessing solar winds to keep it steady, gave the mission (now dubbed "K2") a second wind.

"Today, thanks to an innovative idea and lots of hard work by the NASA and Ball Aerospace team, Kepler may well deliver the first candidates for follow-up study by the James Webb Space Telescope to characterize the atmospheres of distant worlds and search for signatures of life," Hertz happily announced Thursday.

This announcement follows verification of data initially taken in a K2 test-run back in February, which identified a new exoplanet, HIP 116454b, and its star 180 light-years from Earth. The discovery was confirmed with measurements taken by the HARPS-North spectrograph of the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.

Kepler's onboard camera detects planets by looking for transits - when a star's light dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it. The smaller the planet, the weaker the dimming, so brightness measurements must be exceptionally precise. Thanks to the K2 reboot, this is now possible.

"The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system," added Steve Howell, Kepler/K2 project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. "K2 is uniquely positioned to dramatically refine our understanding of these alien worlds and further define the boundary between rocky worlds like Earth and ice giants like Neptune."

The research paper reporting the exoplanet discovery in detail is due for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

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