NASA’s new satellite brings the search for Earthlike exoplanets closer to home

By Daniel Clery

Thanks to NASA’s pioneering Kepler probe, we know our galaxy is teeming with exoplanets. Now, a new generation of exoplanet hunters is set to home in on rocky worlds closer to home.

Over 9 years in space, Kepler has found more than 2600 confirmed exoplanets, implying hundreds of billions in the Milky Way. The new efforts sacrifice sheer numbers and target Earth-size planets whose composition, atmosphere, and climate—factors in whether they might be hospitable to life—could be studied. Leading the charge is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a NASA mission due for launch on 16 April.

The brainchild of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, the $337 million TESS project aims to identify at least 50 rocky exoplanets—Earth-size or bigger—close enough for their atmospheres to be scrutinized by the much larger James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), due for launch in 2020. “Where do we point Webb?” TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker asked rhetorically at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting at National Harbor in Maryland in January. “This is the finder scope.”

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