NASA's K2 fix bags Kepler a new exoplanet

NASA's attempt to salvage the Kepler spacecraft and continue its planet-hunting search despite what could have been a show-stopping hardware failure has paid off, with the first potential exoplanet spotted by the K2 mission. The future of Kepler, which had been launched to identify possible Earth-like planets that might one day be found to support human life, had seemed bleak after half of its stabilization system failed, leaving the high-resolution camera unable to accurately track the tiny localized dimming as expolanets pass in front of stars.

NASA's solution was "Second Light" or the K2 mission, using solar pressure from the sun to act as a stabilizing system in its own right.

The push of solar energy on Kepler was one of the very reasons it required the complex balancing wheels that ended up cutting the mission short. By ensuring that the energy hits the right part of the spacecraft at the right time, the sun is turned into a "virtual" reaction wheel.

It was an ambitious scheme, and it appears to have paid off. HIP 116454b is the first exoplanet to be identified using the system, 2.5x times Earth's diameter, and following a nine day orbit around its star.

On its own, HIP 116454b isn't a good candidate for life: that star may be cooler than our own, but its close proximity makes the planet too hot for any sort of life that we know.

However, the mere fact it was spotted is validation for the K2 mission itself.

More than 35,000 stars have been observed by K2, creating a lengthy list of possibilities for the James Webb Space Telescope to investigate further for possible signatures of life.