Are we alone? NASA’s new planet hunter aims to find out

This artist’s rendition from NASA shows the Transiting
Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which is set for
launch Monday on a mission to search for the nearest
Earth-like planets in our cosmic neighborhood

Are we alone? NASA’s new planet-hunting mission, poised to
launch Monday, aims to advance the search for
extraterrestrial life by scanning the skies for nearby,
Earth-like planets.


The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is poised
to blast off at 6:32 pm (2232 GMT) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9
rocket from a NASA launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $337 million washing machine-sized spacecraft is built to
search the nearest, brightest stars for signs of periodic
dimming. These so-called “transits” may mean that planets are
in orbit around them.

TESS is expected to reveal 20,000 planets beyond our solar
system, known as exoplanets, NASA said.

Its discoveries will be studied further by ground- and
space-based telescopes for signs of habitability, including
rocky terrain, a size similar to Earth and a distance from
their sun—neither too close nor too far—that allows the right
temperature for liquid water.

NASA predicts that TESS could find more than 50 Earth-sized
planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of the
Earth.

TESS will survey far more cosmic terrain than its predecessor,
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which launched in 2009, taking
in some 85 percent of the skies.

“TESS is equipped with four very sensitive cameras that will be
able to monitor nearly the entire sky,” said George Ricker,
TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT).

“That is about 20 times what the Kepler mission was able to
detect.”

Kepler vs TESS

Kepler, the first planet-hunting mission of its kind, “was
launched to answer one single question: How common is a planet
like Earth around a star like the Sun?” said Patricia “Padi”
Boyd, director of the TESS guest investigator program at NASA’s
Goddard Spaceflight Center.

This graphic explains key facts about Nasa’s TESS telescope
as it prepares for launch on a mission to find the nearest
Earth-like planets

“It was designed to look at 150,000 stars in a fairly wide
field of view without blinking, for four years,” she told
reporters on the eve of the launch.

“One of the many amazing things that Kepler told us is that
planets are everywhere and there are all kinds of planets out
there.

“So TESS takes the next step. If planets are everywhere, then
it is time for us to find the planets that are closest to us
orbiting bright nearby stars, because these will be the
touchstone system.”

TESS and Kepler use the same system of detecting planetary
transits, or shadows cast as they pass in front of their star.

While Kepler confirmed some 2,300 exoplanets and thousands more
potential planet candidates, many were too distant and dim to
be studied further.

With Kepler running low on fuel and nearing the end of its
life, TESS aims to pick up the search while focusing closer, on
planets dozens to hundreds of light years away.

“TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets
that we have to study,” said Ricker.

The Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope,
scheduled to launch in 2020, should be able to reveal more
about planets’ mass, density and the makeup of their
atmosphere—all clues to habitability.

The first data from TESS is expected to be made public in July,
and NASA says citizen astronomers are welcome to help study the
planets.

It may be decades before astronomers know whether or not life
exists elsewhere.

“TESS is the first step,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project
scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Explore further:

NASA’s new planet-hunter to seek closer, Earth-like worlds

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