WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- After a year on the proverbial bench, Kepler is back in the game seeking out alien worlds; and for the first time since it was sidelined, scientists confirmed a new exoplanet located by the probe.
In the spring of 2013, NASA's Kepler probe began spinning out of control after its wheeled image-stabilization mechanism broke. With only two of its four wheels in working condition, its mission was retired.
Without the ability to fix its gaze on specific points in space, Kepler was pretty useless as a recorder of optical data and searcher of exoplanets.
But earlier this year, engineers at NASA figured out a way to rig the probing observatory so that the pressure of the sun's rays pinned it into a stable position. After testing proved their troubleshooting had worked, NASA approved funding for another Kepler mission -- K2.
"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," Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics division director, said in a recent press release. "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."
The handicapped probe can only work for 80 days at a time, but it has since completed two scientific campaigns. Scientists are just now parsing the data returned from the first campaign, as Kepler begins its third K2 campaign.
While being tested, Kepler collected data that revealed the existence of an exoplanet more than twice the size of Earth. Planet HIP 116454b orbits a small, cool star found 180 light-years away in the constellation Pisces. Planet HIP 116454b is likely much too cold to support life.
"The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system," said Steve Howell, lead scientist on the Kepler/K2 mission. "K2 is uniquely positioned to dramatically refine our understanding of these alien worlds and further define the boundary between rocky worlds like Earth and ice giants like Neptune."
Keppler has helped discover more than 1,700 new alien worlds since it was launched in 2009.