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Kepler keeps going, finds new ‘super-Earth’

NASA’s Kepler space telescope, once thought “beyond repair,” has found a planet two and a half times the size of Earth elsewhere in the Milky Way, the space agency announced Thursday.

The newly discovered “super-Earth,” dubbed HIP 116454b, is nearly 20,000 miles wide and weighs 12 times as much as our home planet, researchers said in a statement.

Circling a star that’s smaller and cooler than the Sun, the planet orbits its star once every 9.1 days and is 180 light-years from Earth. The planet is either three-fourths water or a gaseous planet like Neptune, researchers added.

“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries,” said lead researcher Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies.”

NASA detected the planet after analyzing data Kepler collected over a 9-day period in February, months after the agency said it was investigating a way to fix a mechanical failure that had kept the planet-hunting spacecraft offline since May 2013. Nearly a year later, NASA gave Kepler a new, two-year mission, called “K2,” to continue its search beyond our solar system for potentially habitable planets.

Kepler’s data helps NASA scientists — who called the telescope’s recent discovery a “comeback” — determine the compositions of these far-flung planets.

“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 NASA scientist Steve Howell, in a statement. “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.”

Launched in March 2009, the $600 million space craft has confirmed the existence of 996 exoplanets.

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