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Different Kind of Solar Power Helps Steer Kepler Spacecraft

Kepler (c) NASA
Kepler (c) NASA

‘Tis the season for recycling – gifts, food and what have you.  ‘Tis also the season to be jolly as well, as dead satellites are reborn and reveal to us faraway planets and stars, not just the one in the East.

Last year, NASA wrote off the Kepler space telescope. However, astronomers and scientists found ways to repurpose the supposedly dead satellite.  It has been dubbed as the comeback of the year because Kepler has not only been reborn, it has also discovered a huge earth-like planet 180 light-years away.

HIP 116454b, is a called a “super Earth”.  It’s in a class of planets that don’t exist in our solar system.  HIP 116454b has a diameter 2.5 times that of Earth and orbits a star that’s a bit cooler and smaller than our sun. Unfortunately, it is too close to its sun in order to support life as we know it.

The significance of this is that it “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” according to Kepler project scientist Steve Howell at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Since 2009, Kepler has found around 1,000 Earth-like planets until its “steering wheels” failed last year.  Though normally the mission would have ended then and there, scientists thought of using light particles from the sun to push the satellite around.  Not exactly like a Jedi lightsaber that the kid in you could get this Christmas, it’s like trying to pushing around a Matchbox using a flashlight.  Funny thing is in the far reaches of space, the idea actually worked.  Hence, Kepler was reborn and continues to make discoveries.  And according to Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., “the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies.”

We’ve heard about the phenomenal rise of solar power this year around the world.  However, this is probably the first time you’ve heard of solar energy being used to steer things around and make things happen.  I guess that we can take a page from the Magi of old and follow the light.

Happy holidays everyone!

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  1. Instead of calling them super earths call them big Rocky worlds. Most of them are devoid of atmospheres since they are orbiting stars closer than mercury orbits our sun. They have no earthly characteristics other than that they are solid rock and not gas giants.


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