New space telescope will continue search for Earth-like worlds

Artist's conception of TESS. Credit: Chet Beals / MIT Lincoln Lab
Artist’s conception of TESS. Credit: Chet Beals / MIT Lincoln Lab

The Kepler space telescope has already found thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars, and now the next space telescope to join the search has been announced.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a project of MIT, was selected by NASA as part of its Explorer Program to launch in 2017 and will be funded by a $200 million grant. It will use wide-field cameras to search for planets, both small and large, orbiting the brightest stars near the sun.

So how does it differ from Kepler and other previous planet-hunting space telescopes? According to principal investigator George Ricker, “TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth.”

It will have the capability of measuring the orbits, sizes, masses, densities and atmospheres of the planets it finds. This includes rocky planets like Earth orbiting in the habitable zones of their stars. Such detailed surveys should bring us even closer to finding other worlds which are similar to our own, a very exciting prospect.

As Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at MIT, notes, “We’re very excited about TESS because it’s the natural next step in exoplanetary science.” Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT, adds, “The selection of TESS has just accelerated our chances of finding life on another planet within the next decade.”

Kepler has also discovered many such smaller worlds already, but the stars that it focuses on are smaller and fainter than those that TESS will look at. As Ricker explains, “The TESS legacy will be a catalog of the nearest and brightest main-sequence stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will forever be the most favorable targets for detailed investigations.”

Kepler and other ground-based telescopes have laid the groundwork by finding that many other planets really are out there, and now TESS and other future missions will continue to study them in much greater detail. We will have a much better idea of what these worlds are actually like and which ones could support life, something that was only dreamed of a few decades ago.

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