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article imageNASA's Kepler telescope finds alien 'Super Earth', may have water

By Sravanth Verma     Dec 20, 2014 in Science
NASA's Kepler space telescope has been partially restored after a malfunction in May 2013, and has begun discovering new exo-planets again.
The first alien planet it discovered since its recovery is HIP 116454b, 180 light-years away, which is a so-called "Super Earth," about two-and-a-half times the size of our world and nine times heavier. The planet is located in the constellation Pisces, and is near enough to us to be observed by various other astronomical instruments.
"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries," the lead author Andrew Vanderburg, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said. "Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies."
HIP 116454b orbits its host star once in 9.1 days and is too close to be viable for life, but researchers believe there may be more planets, some liveable, in this system. Based on the planet's density, Jaymie Matthews, a UBC astronomer and mission scientist with Canada’s first space telescope said, "It could be a miniature version of the ice giant planet Neptune. An even more exciting possibility is that it’s three-quarters water. This Super-Earth may have neighbours, and one might be in the star’s habitable zone," he said. "Only time and careful study of this system will tell.”
The spacecraft detected the planet by the "transit method", which detects the slight dimming that occurs in a star when the planet passes in front of it, as observed from Earth. Kepler has thus far found close to 1000 alien worlds, over half the total number known to mankind. It has also detected 3200 other potential planets, which need further investigation.
The "transit method," requires very precise maneuvers which became impossible once Kepler lost the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels. But NASA increased Kepler's stability by using the subtle pressure of sunlight. They relaunched Kepler's mission, dubbing it K2, which will continue to look for alien planets in a limited way, and study other phenomena, such as active galaxies and supernova explosions.
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