NASA's Kepler space telescope has detected its first new extrasolar planet after mission engineers were able to save the mission from a premature death after two of the exoplanet hunter's four stabilizing reaction wheels failed last year.
Called "K2″, the extended mission arose from an "innovative idea" that appears to have given the prolific telescope a new lease on life.
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"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 at the agency's headquarters in Washington D.C. "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."
During its primary mission, Kepler was kept steady by four functioning reaction wheels, allowing extremely precise observations of one small area of the sky along the Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way. The field of view kept an unblinking eye on tens of thousands of target stars. Throughout the campaign, Kepler detected the slight dimming of starlight caused by hundreds of exoplanets passing in front of their host stars - events known as transits.
After many transits, Kepler was able to identify and characterize some of the most profound exoplanetary discoveries of our time.
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Unfortunately, in May 2013, a second reaction wheel failed inside the instrument, destabilizing it. Kepler was therefore unable to stay trained on that specific area of sky. But that didn't stop mission engineers from thinking up a new mission profile that would allow Kepler to widen its search.
Instead of staying fixed on one part of the sky, earlier this year, Kepler was tasked with repeatedly studying different areas of the Milky way along the plane of the solar system as it orbited, with Earth, around the sun. To maintain stability during its new campaign, mission engineers turned to the sun for help, using the continuous pressure of photons from sunlight to act as a counterbalance.
By February 2014, K2 had gathered its first test results and Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., spotted an exoplanetary candidate in the publicly available test data.
The coordinates of the candidate was then sent to ground observatories and a discovery was consequently confirmed - the revitalized Kepler mission was back in the exoplanet-hunting business!
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K2′s first exoplanet has been designated HIP 116454b, an alien world that is approximately 2.5 times the diameter of Earth with a fast, 9-day compact orbit around its host star. HIP 116454b is 180 light-years away in the constellation Pisces.
"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 in Moffett Field, Calif. "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."
Having embarked on its third campaign, K2 has already studied dense star clusters, star forming regions and observed several celestial objects in our own solar system. It seems that having only half of its reaction wheels functioning hasn't held the mission back and scientists are excited as to what Kepler will discover next, in turn, helping future missions, like the JWST, to seek out hints of habitability in these distant alien worlds' atmospheres.