NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope got its feet wet again after a long hiatus. Kepler spotted HIP 116454b, a ‘super Earth’ about 2.5 times larger than our world. HIP 116454b sits 180 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.
Kepler’s latest discovery almost did not happen.
In May 2013, another one of its orientation-maintaining reaction wheels malfunctioned. Kepler has four total, but the loss of two greatly reduced its ability to orient itself to stars.
In order to spot new exoplanets, Kepler uses the ‘transit method.’ It keeps an eye on a star and waits for a planet to move across the face of the star. This dims the star some and indicates there is a planet.
So, with its pointing abilities severely limited – how did Kepler manage to spot a new ‘super-earth?’
Scientists looked to the sun for help. Pressure from sunlight is able to increase the telescope’s stability and allow the hunt for exoplanets to continue. NASA officials describe it as a “virtual reaction wheel.”
“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,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director.
“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.”
NASA approved a new mission called K2 earlier this year. K2’s mission will continue the search for exoplanets and study nearby stars that harbor planets.
HIP 116454, and similar planets are a gold mine for researchers. Since they are located at nearby bright stars, ground telescopes can study them. Kepler acts as the spotter, while other telescopes follow-up.
“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,” said 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.”