A year and a half after a pointing failure threatened to derail its epochal search for worlds beyond our solar system, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has bagged another planet, astronomers announced on Thursday.
The new planet is 20,000 miles in diameter, about two and a half times the size of Earth, and 12 times as massive, putting it into a category of planets called super-Earths that do not exist in our solar system. It is unlivable, circling a star slightly smaller than the Sun about 180 light-years from here in the constellation Pisces at the roasting distance of only 8.4 million miles, less than a tenth of the distance between us and our star.
Kepler was designed to stare at a patch of stars for four years and watch for blinks caused by planets passing in front of them. Early in 2013, however, one of the reaction wheels that keep the telescope pointed broke down. Engineers figured out a way to compensate using the pressure of sunlight on Kepler’s solar panels to stabilize the spacecraft for smaller periods of time.
During a nine-day test run in February with the telescope, a team led by Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected a planet passing in front of a star known as HIP 116454. Follow-up observations with ground-based telescopes and the Canadian MOST satellite confirmed the presence of a planet, which astronomers said was probably a water world or a “mini-Neptune,” with a small core and a billowing gaseous atmosphere.
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