Are we alone? Nasa’s new planet hunter aims to find out
WASHING-MACHINE-SIZE $337M SPACECRAFT IS EXPECTED TO REVEAL 20,000 MORE PLANETS
Are we alone? Nasa’s new planet-hunting mission, launched yesterday, aims to advance the search for extraterrestrial life by scanning the skies for nearby, Earthlike planets.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or Tess, blasted off at 6.32pm (2232 GMT) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from a Nasa launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
At a total cost of $337 million (Dh1.23 billion), the washingmachine-size spacecraft is built to search the nearest, brightest stars for signs of periodic dimming. These so-called “transits” may mean that planets are in orbit around them.
Tess is expected to reveal 20,000 planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets, Nasa said.
Looking at possibilities
Its discoveries will be studied further by ground- and spacebased telescopes for signs of habitability, including a rocky terrain, a size similar to Earth, and a distance from their sun — neither too close nor too far — that allows the right temperature for liquid water.
Nasa predicts that Tess could find more than 50 Earth-sized planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of the Earth.
Tess will survey far more cosmic terrain than its predecessor, Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope which launched in 2009, taking in some 85 per cent of the skies.
“Tess is equipped with four very sensitive cameras that will be able to monitor nearly the entire sky,” said George Ricker, Tess principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“That is about 20 times what the Kepler mission was able to detect.”
Kepler vs Tess
Kepler, the first planet-hunting mission of its kind, “was launched to answer one single question: How common is a planet like Earth around a star like the Sun?” said Patricia ‘Padi’ Boyd, director of the Tess guest investigator programme at Nasa’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.
“It was designed to look at 150,000 stars in a fairly wide field of view without blinking, for four years,” she told reporters on the eve of the launch. “One of the many amazing things that Kepler told us is that planets are everywhere and there are all kinds of planets out there. “So Tess takes the next step.” The first data from Tess is expected to be made public in July, and Nasa says citizen astronomers are welcome to help study the planets for signs of possible habitability.