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Kepler Probe Spots HIP 116454b, a Super Earth 180 Light-years Away

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Kepler spacecraft has found a new planet called HIP 116454b about 180 light-years away from the Earth.

Kepler was launched in 2009 and it is designed to find extrasolar planets. However, in July 2012 one of the four reaction wheels of the spacecraft failed, which threatened the continuation of the mission. In November 2013, NASA announced a new mission called "K2" that would utilize the remaining capability of Kepler.

On Thursday, Dec. 18, NASA announced that Kepler was re-born as it discovered a new planet.

"Today, thanks to an innovative idea and lots of hard work by the NASA and Ball Aerospace team, Kepler may well deliver the first candidates for follow-up study by the James Webb Space Telescope to characterize the atmospheres of distant worlds and search for signatures of life," says Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division.

Andrew Vanderburg, a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA) in Cambridge, used data collected from Kepler and spotted the new planet. Vanderburg explains that Kepler detects a planet when a star dims faintly as a planet comes in front of it. The size of the planet is measured by the dimming caused on the star, so the measurement of the brightness should be precise. To allow such precision, Kepler should have maintained a steady pointing.

Experts suggest that without the three functional reaction wheels, Kepler may have not been able to point accurately. With all four functional reaction wheels, Kepler would have provided extremely precise information.

Vanderburg reveals that the new planet has a diameter of 20,000 miles, which is 2.5 times the size of our planet. The size of HIP 116454b makes it a super-Earth, which is a class of planets that does not exist in our solar system. The astronomers believe that 75 percent of the new planet is water and rest rock. The planet is also believed to have gaseous atmosphere.

HIP 116454b revolves around its star once in every 9.1 days and is 8.5 million miles away from its star. The finding of the new planet suggests that its host star is a type K orange dwarf, which is somewhat cooler and smaller than the sun in our Solar System. The star is in the Pisces constellation and is 180 light-years from the Earth.

As the host star is quite bright as well as near, scientists can conduct follow-up studies to discover fainter orbiting planets in the system.  

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