‘Planet hunter’ to seek closer, Earth-like worlds

NASA to launch $337m craft

Arab Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

TAMPA, April 16, (AFP): 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 har­bor 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 Cen­ter, 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 ag­ing 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 30-100 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 ground­based and space tele­scopes to peer even closer.

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