NASA's Kepler space telescope is discovering alien planets again.
The prolific spacecraft has spotted its first new alien planet since being hobbled by a malfunction in May 2013, researchers announced Thursday. The newly discovered world, called HIP 116454b, is a "super Earth" about 2.5 times larger and 12 times more massive than our home planet. It lies 180 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Pisces — close enough to be studied by other instruments, scientists said.
"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries," study lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in a statement. "Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies." [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]
Kepler launched in March 2009 on a 3.5-year mission to determine how frequently Earthlike planets occur around the Milky Way galaxy. The spacecraft has found nearly 1,000 confirmed planets and about 3,200 other candidates.
The spacecraft finds planets by the "transit method," watching for the telltale dimming caused when a world cross the face of its parent star. Such work requires precise pointing — an ability the spacecraft lost in 2013 when the second of its four reaction wheels failed.
The Kepler team devised a way to increase Kepler's stability by using the subtle pressure of sunlight, then proposed an extended mission called K2.
NASA green-lighted K2 for two years in May of this year, but Kepler first detected HIP 116454b even earlier. Vanderburg and his colleagues — who developed special software to analyze data gathered by the spacecraft in its compromised state — noticed a single transit of the planet in Kepler observations from a nine-day test run in February. The astronomers confirmed the discovery using the HARPS-North spectrograph on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.
HIP 116454b's density suggests it is either primarily covered by water or is a "mini-Neptune." It lies just 8.4 million miles (13.5 million kilometers) from its host star and completes one orbit every 9.1 days. The close-orbiting planet is too hot to host life as we know it, researchers said.
The research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.