Are we alone? Nasa’s new planet hunter aims to find out


Gulf News - - World -

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.

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