NASA’s next-gen planet hunter will root out nearby habitable worlds


With the success of the Kepler space telescope firmly established, NASA is now taking the next step in finding exoplanets, by approving a new orbiting telescope that will focus its search on finding habitable worlds around nearby stars.

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is scheduled to launch in 2017. Unlike Kepler, which looks for planets in a very narrow region of space, TESS will be using an array of four telescopes that will sweep the entire sky in its search for exoplanets, and especially for Earth-sized worlds in the habitable zone of the nearest stars to us.

[ Related: NASA to Launch Planet-Hunting Probe in 2017 ]

"TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission," said George Ricker, who is the mission's principal investigator at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI), according to an MIT press release. "It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth."

"We’re very excited about TESS because it’s the natural next step in exoplanetary science," said Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at MIT who is on the TESS team with Ricker, according to the press release.

TESS works on the same principles as the Kepler telescope. It will watch the stars for 'transits' — when the light from a star dims slightly due to something passing between us and that star.

According to the MIT statement:

With TESS, it will be possible to study the masses, sizes, densities, orbits and atmospheres of a large cohort of small planets, including a sample of rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars. TESS will provide prime targets for further characterization by the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as other large ground-based and space-based telescopes of the future.

In designing the TESS mission, the astronomers at MIT had to not only build upon Kepler's technological legacy, but they also came up with a special new orbit for the telescope.

"For TESS, we were able to devise a special new ‘Goldilocks’ orbit for the spacecraft — one which is not too close, and not too far, from both the Earth and the moon," said Ricker in the MIT statement.

This orbit, apparently, strikes a balance that will not only maintain the right temperature for the telescope's cameras, but will also give the astronomers a high-speed link to download the telescope's data every two weeks.

[ More Geekquinox: NASA chief says no Moon missions in the near future ]

As someone who has enthusiastically followed the findings of the Kepler telescope team for the past four years, and has even been participating in the search for exoplanets, this is some exciting news. So far, the closest Earth-sized exoplanet we've found so far is Alpha Centauri Bb, 4.3 light years away from us, and the closest potentially-habitable world may have been found around Tau Ceti, roughly 12 light years away. This new mission has the potential to find thousands of new worlds right in our galactic backyard, but the best part of this mission is its focus on habitable worlds.

As Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT who is also on the TESS team, puts it: "The selection of TESS has just accelerated our chances of finding life on another planet within the next decade."

(Image courtesy: MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!