Get Ready For the Next Big Thing In NASA’s Search For Earth’s Twin

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Get Ready For the Next Big Thing In NASA’s Search For Earth’s Twin‘NPRNASA’s TESS Satellite Will Supercharge Search for Nearby, Earth-Like Worlds‘Space.comNASA’s new planet hunter explores universe, searches for ‘signatures of life’‘ABC News

Get Ready For the Next Big Thing In NASA’s Search For Earth’s Twin

An artist’s representation of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, observing an M dwarf star with orbiting planets. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center hide caption

If signs of life are found on a planet beyond our solar system sometime in the next decade, they’ll most likely be on a planet discovered by a NASA satellite that’s scheduled to launch on Monday.

The mission is called TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and it will spend two years scanning almost the entire sky to search for alien worlds.

Scientists already know of over 3,000 planets around distant stars, thanks in large part to a previous NASA mission called Kepler. It spent years staring at stars in a small patch of the sky to look for a tell-tale dimming that meant a planet had passed by and blocked some of the starlight.

The Kepler mission revealed that planets of all sorts of sizes are extremely common. “There are far more planets in the Milky Way than there are stars,” says MIT astronomer George Ricker, the principal investigator for TESS.

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NASA’s TESS Satellite Will Supercharge Search for Nearby, Earth-Like Worlds

On Monday, April 16, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA's new exoplanet hunter will train its sights on nearer, brighter stars than its predecessors did. If TESS lives up to scientists' predictions, it could energize our search for life in the cosmos.

When the Kepler space telescope launched in 2009, scientists didn't know what fraction of stars hosted planets. The Kepler mission was a statistical exploration looking to see how frequently planets occur around stars, Harvard astronomer David Latham told Space.com. "One of the big surprises from Kepler was to find this whole population of planets with sizes between that of Neptune and Earth — and there aren't any in our solar system, zero — and they're everywhere out there," said Latham, who's worked on the Kepler project for nearly 20 years.

 "Kepler is what made us become aware that planets are as common as telephone poles," SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak told Space.com."But the stars that Kepler was staring at for four years … they were all somewhere between 500 and 1,500 light-years away." TESS will survey the local neighborhood for planets like Earth. [NASA's TESS Exoplanet-Hunter in Pictures]

TESS is designed to find planets orbiting nearby stars spread across the sky, astrophysicist and pioneering exoplanet researcher Sara Seager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Space.com. The satellite is not specifically intended to look for planets that can support life, but it can find planets orbiting in the habitable zone of small stars, said Seager, who serves as a deputy science director on TESS.

TESS will find signals of planet candidates, Seager said. A lot of follow-up work will go into determining whether these candidates are truly planets, rather than binary stars, artifacts in the data or something else. Once this is accomplished, deeper investigation can begin. Unlike with Kepler, the stars TESS examines will be bright enough and close enough to allow detailed follow-up studies with large ground telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

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NASA’s new planet hunter explores universe, searches for ‘signatures of life’

The agency’s new planet hunter — named TESS, or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — is one of its most important missions, says astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi.

Beyond the planets in the Kuiper belt, though, scientists hope TESS will find more planets. NASA astronomers have already discovered thousands of exoplanets.

But TESS — the first-ever spaceborne, all-sky transit survey — will identify a wide range of planets, from Earth-sized to gas giants.

‘Light passing through the planets’ atmospheres, or bouncing off their atmospheres, will provide details of the planets’ chemistry and search for signatures of life,’ he said.

So when a planet passes in front of its host star, the light will dim, Oluseyi said, and that’s what TESS will be looking for — those dimming lights that astronomers call dips transits.

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