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Kepler Spacecraft Discovers New ‘Super-Earth’

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NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has proved that it can still find new exoplanets. The planet-hunting spacecraft has discovered a new exoplanet, which astronomers call Super-Earth, using its K2 mission. Named HIP 116454b, the newly discovered exoplanet is 180 light years away from the Earth, in the constellation Pisces. Its diameter is 2.5x bigger than our planet, and follows a 9-day orbit around a star that is cooler and smaller than our Sun.

Kepler has found about 1,000 planets since launch

It’s a big comeback for Kepler, which had to end its primary mission in May 2013 after suffering malfunction. But engineers and astronomers repurposed Kepler for a new K2 mission in May 2014. In less than eight months, the K2 mission has observed about 35,000 stars and collected data on star clusters and star-forming regions. HIP 116454b is just 8.4 million miles from its host star.

Since its launch in March 2009, Kepler has found about 1,000 confirmed planets, plus another 3,200 “likely candidates.” It hunts for exoplanets that transit their host stars. The spacecraft’s onboard camera identifies planets by looking for transits. When a planet crosses in front of its host star, the distant star dims slightly. However, the HIP 116454b was discovered even before the K2 mission was fully repurposed in May 2014.

HIP 116454b is 20,000 miles wide

Lead researcher Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics studied data collected by Kepler during the testing of K2 mission in February 2014. It led to the discovery of the Super-Earth, which is too hot for life as we know it. HIP 116454b is 20,000 miles wide and 12x more massive than the Earth, the U.S. space agency said. The exoplanet’s density indicates that it is either a “mini Neptune” with a thick atmosphere or a water world.

Astronomers confirmed the discovery with measurements taken by Telescopio Nazionale Galileo’s HARPS-North spectrograph in the Canary Islands. Smaller planets such as HIP 116454b are a sweet spot for the K2 mission as they make good prospects for follow-up studies.

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