Exoplanet hunter heralds a new era in the search for worlds
Deputy director of TESS says much has been learned from Kepler, ensuring discoveries will come quickly
The deputy director of a NASA mission that is currently hunting for new planets has heaped praise on the legacy of the much-acclaimed Kepler mission. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) astronomer Sara Seager says Kepler – which officially came to an end on 30 October – opened scientific eyes to the unexpected, ensuring researchers are better equipped to process the data currently being sent home by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
TESS, which launched back in April, is expected to identify as many as 2,000 to 3,000 new planets over its initial two years of operation by looking for dips in brightness as orbiting worlds pass by. “Finding planets with the transit method has just become quite standard,” she explains, pointing to the method used by Kepler. “TESS didn't have to solve those [extremely] big problems.”
Indeed, with four camera-detectors as part of its high-tech repertoire, Seager is convinced TESS will herald a new era for discovery, particularly as it will cover an area 400-times larger than that of Kepler, taking in some 200,000 nearby stars. Already two possible planets have been identified since TESS began science observations in June, and many more are expected, with Kepler having already taught scientists that Earth-sized planets are practically everywhere.
“Kepler was a game-changer; it was so pioneering for exoplanets,” Seager says, adding that Kepler discovered planets two- or three-times the size of Earth were ten-times more common than planets like Jupiter. Kepler also gathered data that suggested some planets orbited stars in less than a terrestrial day or were so hot their surfaces are liquid lava. “Before Kepler launched we only knew of hundreds of exoplanets,” Seager says “And Kepler found thousands of them.”
An artist’s impression of how TESS looks as it surveys 200,000 of the brightest stars near the Sun for transiting exoplanets