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Kepler Spacecraft Continues to Hunt Alien Planets in Secondary Mission

First Posted: Dec 18, 2014 01:17 PM EST
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Kepler isn't quite done yet when it comes to hunting for exoplanets. Although the Kepler spacecraft's primary mission came to an end when the second of four reaction wheels used to stabilize the spacecraft failed, scientists have come up with an ingenious strategy to control Kepler and use it in a new mission.

NASA's Kepler detects planets by looking for transits. These occur when a star dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it. The smaller the planet, the weaker the dimming-which means that brightness measurements have to be extremely precise to detect the planet in the first place. This means that when Kepler's reaction wheels failed, it became impossible to point Kepler accurately which essentially meant an end to its mission.

Yet scientists weren't done with the spacecraft yet. The scientists decided to use pressure from sunlight as a virtual reaction wheel to help control the spacecraft. The resulting second mission, known as K2, promised to continue Kepler's search for other worlds.

Now, Kepler has found another planet. Using specialized software to correct for spacecraft movements, the researchers managed to spot another planet, called HIP 116454b. The newly found planet has a diameter of 20,000 miles, which makes it two and a half times the size of Earth.

"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries," said Andrew Vanderburg, lead author of a new study, in a news release. "Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies."

The findings show that Kepler is well on its way to finding new planets, despite the end of its first mission. As this spacecraft continues to send data back to Earth, scientists can target which planets are worth further study.

The findings can be found in a paper that's been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

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