With the discovery of the first exoplanet found using its new K2 mission, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has made a comeback. The new exoplanet called HIP 116454b is 2.5 times the diameter of the Earth and follows a close, nine-day orbit around a star.
The discovery was made when astronomers and engineers devised an ingenious way to repurpose Kepler for the K2 mission and continue its search of the cosmos for other worlds.
HIP 116454b and its star are 180 light-years away from the Earth, toward the constellation Pisces, the US space agency said in a statement.
“Last summer, the possibility of a scientifically productive mission for Kepler after its reaction wheel failure in its extended mission was not even part of the conversation,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
Adding, he said, “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.”
The discovery was confirmed with measurements taken by the HARPS-North spectrograph of the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.
Kepler’s on board camera detects planets by looking for transits when a distant star dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it, the statement added.
Small planets like HIP 116454b, orbiting nearby bright stars, are a scientific sweet spot for K2 as they are good prospects for follow-up ground studies to obtain mass measurements.
Using K2’s size measurements and ground-based mass measurements, astronomers can calculate the density of a planet to determine whether it is likely a rocky, watery 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,” said Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist.
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,” Howell added.
The paper is forthcoming in The Astrophysical Journal. (IANS)