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

All About Space - - Launch Pad -

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

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