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Kepler's STILL GOT IT! Space telescope spots SUPER-EARTH 180 light years away

Damaged 'scope still producing good science

By Iain Thomson, 20 Dec 2014

The Kepler space telescope might be damaged goods, but the clever hacks created by NASA's boffins have kept it running and it has spotted a new – if distant – planet that could harbor water, just like Earth.

"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries. Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies," said lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

In May of 2013, NASA reported that two of the four spinning reaction wheels used to orient the telescope had conked out, leaving Earth-bound controllers unable to point the instrument accurately.

But NASA engineers later managed to stabilize the telescope by using the power of the Sun to augment the reaction wheels. The team used the pressure of particles streaming out from the Sun as a "third wheel" to augment the remaining hardware and were able to orient the telescope accurately and keep it looking for distant planets.

The first test of the system took place in February and was successful. In that observation run, Kepler spotted another planet, dubbed HIP 116454b, orbiting a type K orange dwarf star that was 180 light years away in the constellation of Pisces. The planet is around two and a half times the size of Earth, but with a mass 12 times greater than our terrestrial home.

Data from the telescope shows the planet orbits its sun every 9.1 days at a distance of 8.4 million miles away. Density readings show that the planet is either very similar to our own (comprising around three-fourths water and one-fourth rock) or a gas giant with an extended atmosphere, like Jupiter.

"HIP 116454b will be a top target for telescopes on the ground and in space," said Harvard astronomer and co-author John Johnson of the CfA.

The full details of Kepler's latest discovery will be published in The Astrophysical Journal. ®

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