Nasa’s new planet- hunter to seek closer, Earth- like worlds

■ Nasa is poised to launch a $ 337 mil­lion wash­ing ma­chi­ne­sized space­craft that aims to vastly ex­pand mankind’s search for plan­ets be­yond our so­lar sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly closer, Earth- sized ones that might har­bour life

The Asian Age - - News+ - Kerry Sheri­dan

Tampa: Nasa is poised to launch a $ 337 mil­lion wash­ing ma­chine- sized space­craft that aims to vastly ex­pand mankind’s search for plan­ets be­yond our so­lar sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly closer, Earth- sized ones that might har­bour life.

The Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite, or TESS, is sched­uled to launch Mon­day at 6.32 pm ( 2232 GMT) atop a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Its main goal over the next two years is to scan more than 200,000 of the bright­est stars for signs of plan­ets cir­cling them and caus­ing a dip in bright­ness known as a tran­sit.

Nasa pre­dicts that TESS will dis­cover 20,000 ex­o­plan­ets — or plan­ets out­side the so­lar sys­tem — in­clud­ing more than 50 Earth- sized plan­ets and up to 500 plan­ets less than twice the size of Earth.

“They are go­ing to be or­bit­ing the near­est, bright­est stars,” Elisa Quin­tana, TESS sci­en­tist at Nasa’s God­dard

Space­flight Cen­tre, told re­porters on Sun­day.

“We might even find plan­ets that or­bit stars that we can even see with the naked eye,” she added.

“So in the next few years we might even be able to walk out­side and point at a star and know that it has a planet. This is the fu­ture.”

Just a cou­ple of decades ago, the no­tion of find­ing hab­it­able plan­ets — or any plan­ets at all — was a mere fan­tasy, said Paul Hertz, as­tro­physics di­vi­sion di­rec­tor at Nasa.

“Hu­mans have won­dered for­ever whether we were alone in the uni­verse, and un­til 25 years ago the only plan­ets we knew about were the eight in our own so­lar sys­tem,” he told re­porters on the eve of the TESS launch.

“But since then, we have found thou­sands of plan­ets or­bit­ing oth­ers stars and we think all the stars in our galaxy must have their own fam­ily of plan­ets.”

TESS is de­signed as a fol­lowon to the US space agency’s Ke­pler space­craft, which was the first of its kind and launched in 2009.

The age­ing space­craft is cur­rently low on fuel and near the end of its life.

Ke­pler found a mas­sive trove of ex­o­plan­ets by fo­cus­ing on one patch of sky, which con­tained about 150,000 stars like the Sun.

The Ke­pler mis­sion found 2,300 con­firmed ex­o­plan­ets, and thou­sands more can­di­date plan­ets. But many were too dis­tant and dim to study fur­ther.

TESS, with its four ad­vanced cam­eras, will scan an area that is 350 times larger, com­pris­ing 85 per­cent of the sky in the first two years alone.

“By look­ing at such a large sec­tion of the sky — this kind of stel­lar real es­tate — we open up the abil­ity to cherry- pick the best stars to do fol­low- up science,” said Jenn Burt, a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy ( MIT).

“On av­er­age the stars that TESS ob­serves are 30100 times brighter and 10 times closer than the stars that Ke­pler fo­cused on.”

TESS uses the same method as Ke­pler for find­ing po­ten­tial plan­ets, by track­ing the dim­ming of light when a ce­les­tial body passes in front of a star.

The next step is for ground- based and space tele­scopes to peer even closer.

The Hub­ble Space Tele­scope and the James Webb Space Tele­scope, sched­uled to launch in 2020, should be able to re­veal more about plan­ets’ mass, den­sity and the makeup of their at­mos­phere — all clues to hab­it­abil­ity.

“TESS forms a bridge from what we have learned about ex­o­plan­ets to date and where we are headed in the fu­ture,” said Jeff Volosin, TESS project man­ager at Nasa’s God­dard Space­flight Cen­tre.

By fo­cus­ing on plan­ets dozens to hun­dreds of light- years way, TESS may en­able fu­ture break­throughs, he said.

“With the hope that some­day, in the next decades, we will be able to iden­tify the po­ten­tial for life to ex­ist out­side the so­lar sys­tem.”

Weather was ex­pected to be 80 per­cent favourable for launch.

Nasa pre­dicts that the Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite, or TESS, will dis­cover 20,000 ex­o­plan­ets — or plan­ets out­side the so­lar sys­tem — in­clud­ing more than 50 Earth- sized plan­ets and up to 500 plan­ets less than twice the size of Earth

TESS is de­signed as a fol­low- on to the US space agency’s Ke­pler space­craft, which was the first of its kind and launched in 2009

— AFP

This Nasa hand­out artist's ren­di­tion shows the Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite ( TESS), a Nasa Ex­plorer mis­sion launch­ing in 2018 to study ex­o­plan­ets, or plan­ets or­bit­ing stars out­side our so­lar sys­tem.

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