NASA’s Kepler spacecraft could have just been dumped after a hardware failure in 2013, but because of some ingenious maneuvering by NASA scientists, Kepler has instead made a major discovery.
When Kepler launched in 2009, its mission was to find out how common potentially life-supporting planets are in this part of the galaxy, particularly those that are similar to Earth (small in size and close in proximity to a bright star). For four years, Kepler looked at the same bit of space, including 150,000 stars, to see if any planets passed by.
In May 2013, however, one of Kepler’s four reaction wheels failed. This made the craft unstable and easily moved out of position.
Instead of giving up on Kepler, NASA scientists decided to use the sun as a physical force to push against the spacecraft’s solar panels, artificially creating a new fourth reaction wheel and stabilizing it. Kepler’s maneuverability has been reduced, but the quick fix worked, allowing it to continue its observations.
And those observations have paid off. Kepler continued to take pictures, and a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Andrew Vanderburg, was able to compare the photos and discover a “Super Earth.” A planet about 2.5 times larger than Earth, it’s 180 light years away and could conceivably be hospitable to life—though probably not life as we know it.
Called HIP 116454b, the planet is 20,000 miles in diameter and was originally detected by Kepler during a nine-day test run in February.
“Last summer, the possibility of a scientifically productive mission for Kepler, after its reaction wheel failure in its extended mission, was not part of the conversation,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director. “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.”