Nasa Tess space­craft to prowl for plan­ets as galac­tic scout

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Look up at the sky tonight. Ev­ery star you see—plus hun­dreds of thou­sands, even mil­lions more—will come un­der the in­tense stare of Nasa’s new­est planet hunter.

Set to lift off early next week, the Tess space­craft will prowl for plan­ets around the clos­est, bright­est stars. These new­found worlds even­tu­ally will be­come prime tar­gets for fu­ture tele­scopes look­ing to tease out any signs of life.

It will be the most ex­ten­sive sur­vey of its kind from or­bit, with Tess, a galac­tic scout, comb­ing the neigh­bor­hood as never be­fore.

Sci­en­tists ex­pect Tess to find thou­sands of ex­o­plan­ets— the term for plan­ets out­side our so­lar sys­tem.

Nasa’s as­tro­physics di­rec­tor, Paul Hertz, said mis­sions like Tess will help an­swer whether we’re alone—or just lucky enough to have “the best prime real es­tate in the galaxy.”

Tess—short for Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite—is the heir ap­par­ent to the wildly suc­cess­ful Ke­pler Space Te­le­scope, the pi­o­neer of plan­e­tary cen­sus. Ke­pler’s fuel tank is run­ning pre­car­i­ously low af­ter nine years of flight, and Nasa ex­pects it to shut down within sev­eral months.

Still on the look­out from on high, Ke­pler alone has dis­cov­ered more than 2,600 con­firmed ex­o­plan­ets. Even more can­di­dates await con­fir­ma­tion.

The ex­o­planet count, from all ob­ser­va­to­ries in space and on Earth over the past cou­ple of decades, stands at more than 3,700 con­firmed with 4,500 on the strong con­tender list.

About 50 are be­lieved to be po­ten­tially hab­it­able. They have the right size and the right or­bit of their star to sup­port sur­face wa­ter and, at least the­o­ret­i­cally, to sup­port life.

Most of the Ke­pler-iden­ti­fied plan­ets are so far away that it would take mon­ster-size tele­scopes to ex­am­ine them more. So as­tronomers want to fo­cus on stars that are vastly brighter and closer to home—close enough for Nasa’s up­com­ing James Webb Space Te­le­scope to scru­ti­nize the at­mos­pheres of plan­ets lurk­ing in their sun’s shad­ows. Pow­er­ful ground tele­scopes also will join in the de­tailed ob­ser­va­tions, as well as enor­mous ob­ser­va­to­ries still on the draw­ing board.

The to­tal mis­sion price tag for Tess is $337 mil­lion. /

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