Kepler's new mission finds exoplanet

The discovery is the first since the NASA spacecraft suffered a mechanical failure.


The new mission uses public data to confirm any new exoplanets it discovered

Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

The discovery of a new exoplanet marks the recovery of NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft. The telescope was repurposed after a fault rendered it unable to perform its primary mission. It is hoped that the new K2 programme will continue to make discoveries.

The newly found planet, HIP 16454b, is 180 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces. The world is 2.5 times the diameter of Earth and orbits around its star every nine days, meaning it is too hot for liquid water to exist on its surface.

Due to the planet’s close orbit, there is a good chance that ground based follow up observations will be able to determine its mass. This means that astronomers can calculate the planet’s density and whether it is a rocky, liquid or gaseous world.

“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,” says 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 K2 mission began in May 2014, after the flywheel of the Kepler spacecraft broke. The spacecraft lost much of its positional accuracy, meaning it could no longer perform its primary task of hunting for exoplanets. However, the team of scientists and engineers behind the mission soon came up with a secondary plan that would still allow the observatory to carry on searching the Galaxy for these distant worlds.

“Today, thanks to an innovative idea and lots of hard work by the NASA and Ball Aerospace team,” says Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics division director, “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.”

To read more about Kepler and the K2 mission, download the December 2014 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine available on iOS and Android.


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