Last year, an equipment failure caused NASA to deem its $600-million Kepler space telescope unrepairable. But since then, astronomers and engineers devised an ingenious way to repurpose Kepler, whose mission has been to scour the cosmos in search of Earthlike planets.
Not only has the planet-hunting probe been reborn, but it also has discovered a massive exoplanet some 180 light-years away.
The planet, called HIP 116454b, is a “super Earth” with a diameter 2.5 times the diameter of Earth. It orbits a star thatis a little cooler and smaller than our sun, located in the Pisces constellation. However, the planet is too close to its star to support life as we know it, according to NASA.
Super Earths are in a class of planets that don’t exist in our solar system, and HIP 116454b’s average density suggests that it is either a watery world (three-fourths water and one-fourth rock) or a planet with a gaseous atmosphere, like a mini-Neptune.
Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has found nearly 1,000 confirmed Earth-like planets and when two of Kepler’s gyroscope-like steering wheels failed last year, astronomers devised alternative methods to keep the hunt alive.
Scientists at Ball Aerospace in Colorado came up with an idea the Los Angeles Times called “so crazy it just might work.” Since light particles from the sun exert enough pressure to push Kepler around, scientists realized they could harness this energy and use it as a “third wheel” to control Kepler.
The plan seems to have worked.