“Alien Biology” TESS –NASA’s New Habitable Exoplanet Hunter Opens a New ‘Post-Kepler’ Era



“One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an astronomer finds a planet in a star’s habitable zone, will it be interesting from a biologist’s point of view?” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, which is leading the mission. “We expect TESS will discover a number of planets whose atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life, could be precisely measured by future observers.”

"I don't think we know everything TESS is going to accomplish," says TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart. "To me, the most exciting part of any mission is the unexpected result, the one that nobody saw coming."


NASA's next planet-hunting spacecraft — whose full name is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — will lift off on its two-year mission on April 16 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. With a gravitational assist from the moon, the spacecraft will settle into a 13.7-day orbit around Earth. Sixty days after launch, following tests of its instruments, TESS will begin zooming in on more than 200,000 nearby stars using its four special cameras to hunt for signs of orbiting worlds, many of which could end up being studied in detail by other observatories, NASA team members said.

"TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study," said Rinehart, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We're going to be able to study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It's the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research."

If all goes according to plan, the 700-lb. (318 kilograms) TESS will settle into a highly elliptical, 13.7-day incredibly stable orbit that brings it as close to Earth as 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers) and as far away as 232,000 miles (373,000 km). Its orbit, a first, allows TESS to stay aloft for decades without performing any engine burns, say mission officials.

TESS will employ its cameras to hunt for "transits," the tiny brightness dips that result when alien planets cross their host stars' faces –the smae method used by the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered about two-thirds of the roughly 3,700 known exoplanets.



TESS price tag is capped at $200 million vs Kepler's $600 million. In addition, Kepler had a static field of view that took in about 1/4th of the Milky Way that harbored 150,000 stars more than 1,000 light-years distant during its primary mission, which ran from 2009 through 2013.

TESS will conduct a broader survey, rotating its field of view to cover about 85 percent of the sky, concentrating on stars less than 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s targets. The brightness of these target stars will allow researchers to use spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light, to determine a planet’s mass, density, and atmospheric composition. Water and other key molecules in its atmosphere can give hints about a planets’ capacity to harbor life.

The new mission is expected to discover thousands of new planets, says NASA, some of which will be close enough to be studied in detail by other instruments, such as NASA's $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which has recently been rescheduled to launch in May 2020.

"With those larger telescopes, we'll be able to look for telltale signs in the atmospheres of those planets that might tell us what the planets are made of, and perhaps even whether they have the kinds of gases in their atmospheres that, on Earth, are an indication of life," Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters, said during a news conference today (March 28). "TESS itself will not be able to find life beyond Earth, but TESS will help us figure out where to point our larger telescopes in that search."

While TESS is focused on exoplanets, researchers around the world will have the chance to use the spacecraft at times to investigate other cosmic objects and phenomena via a "guest investigator" program, NASA officials said.

The TESS mission is managed by NASA Goddard and led and operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. TESS principal investigator George Ricker is based at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

The Daily Galaxy via NASA, Harvard, and Space.com 

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