The Kepler spacecraft has had its shares of ups and downs since its 2009 launch. The downs have included a 2013 mechanical failure that left Kepler supposedly "beyond repair". The ups have included a "resourceful strategy" that made use of pressure from sunlight to allow Kepler to be repurposed for a "K2 mission" announced a little more than a year ago. And that K2 mission has arrived at its first success: the confirmed discovery of an Earth-like planet, the New York Times reports. Kepler's directive is to seek out new planets by basically staring at stars all day and watching for "transits," those blips on the screen when a planet passes in front of its parent star. The newly discovered planet, called HIP 116454b, is said to be 2.5 times the size of our planet, 12 times the mass, and about 180 light-years from Earth, Universe Today reports.
"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries," says Andrew Vanderburg, who led the team behind the find. Kepler sighted HIP 116454b during a February test run (the K2 mission officially began in May), and its existence was verified with ground telescopes and Canada's MOST satellite. Astronomers are calling it a possible "water world or a 'mini-Neptune,' with a small core and a billowing gaseous atmosphere," as per the Times. Because of its close, 9.1-day orbit around its star, the planet would be too hot to be habitable, scientists say. Still, Kepler's mission continues. "K2 is uniquely positioned to ... further define the boundary between rocky worlds like Earth and ice giants like Neptune," a Kepler/K2 project scientist says in a NASA press release. (Astronomers think they found their first "exomoon" hovering around an exoplanet last year.)