NASA Adds New 'Planet Hunter' to its Spacecraft Fleet

NASA prepares to add a new space telescope named Tess to its fleet next week, hoping to improve humanity's chances of finding life outside of Earth.
Shelby Rogers

NASA has a new tool in hunting out thousands of new planets, and its name is Tess. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess) will take over for the famous Kepler Space Telescope when it launches next week. 

Tess will be the most extensive surveyor of the galaxy ever created, according to NASA. 

"We're going to look at every single one of those stars," said George Ricker. Ricker serves as Tess's chief scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Other NASA officials said they hoped Tess and similar missions could help answer whether or not we're actually alone in the galaxy. Tess is equipped with four cameras, primed to zoom in on a red dwarf star at 10 times closer than the Kepler was able to achieve. Ricker said Tess will survey stars anywhere from 300 light-years to 500 light-years away. 

Tess's cameras work by taking advantage of how red dwarfs function. Planets cause a slight dip in a star's brightness as it passes in front of the star. Tess simply detects those instances. 

"All astronomers for centuries to come are really going to focus on these objects," Ricker said. "This is really a mission for the ages."

Taking over for the Kepler Space Telescope is no easy feat. Since its debut, the Kepler telescope alone has discovered over 2,600 confirmed exoplanets. (Those are just the ones that have been confirmed by NASA. There are still more objects found by Kepler that have yet to be confirmed.) 

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Kepler's discoveries make up most of the confirmed exoplanets found within the last couple of decades. More than 3,700 exoplanets have been listed and an additional 4,500 are on the 'strong contender' list. 

“Kepler was all about doing a census: How common are planets in general? What is the size distribution of planets like? Are Earth-sized planets common?” Stephen Rinehart, the project scientist for TESS at NASA, tells The Verge. “TESS is really optimized for knocking on doors in the neighborhood and saying, ‘Hi, how are you? What is this planet actually like?’”

Of those thousands of exoplanets, 50 are potentially habitable. The most recent exoplanets to make headlines were the ones announced in February 2017 in the Trappist system

Sara Seager, an astrophysicist from MIT, has spent her entire career to finding another exoplanet comparable to Earth's conditions. However, she said while there's plenty of new discoveries being made thanks to Kepler (and soon Tess), we're far from there.

"It's not "Interstellar" or "Arrival." Not yet anyway," she said, referring to two recent hit sci-fi films.

“Having TESS in the fold is just fantastic,” Jessie Dotson, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the project scientist for the Kepler spacecraft, told The Verge. “They’re going to find planets in parts of the sky we can’t look at.”

The NASA team stressed in its announcement that Tess does not and cannot look for atmospheric signs of life. It is simply not equipped to do that.

NASA project manager Jeff Volosin said the technology that is needed to communicate with those worlds doesn't exist yet, but steps are being taken.

"For me, just knowing they're there would be enough," Volosin said. "Just knowing that you're not alone."


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