Exactly 25 years ago, no one knew exactly if the stars that covered our night sky had anything around them that resembled any planet, much less Earth. 19659008] Then came a NASA planet finder called Kepler, who began in 2009 to find fascinating, tell-tale blips to find stars other than our Sun. Almost everywhere where his cameras were looking, a new spot was discovered, which meant a wealth of "exoplanets." Kepler's amazing planet find – more than 1,000 of the 3,700 discovered to this day – was one of the first astronomical efforts to show that the basic pattern of our solar system seems to be commonplace elsewhere.
Now the successor of Kepler is here. This planetary hunter, a 700-pound spacecraft called the Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is scheduled to launch next month and focus on stars closer and brighter than Kepler's.
TESS will operate in a unique elliptical orbit, synchronized with the Moon, to align its four advanced cameras at approximately 200,000 stars. The mission is to detect short brightness decreases caused by a planet intersecting a star. In this orbit, the TESS spacecraft will remain stable for decades.
This kind of groundbreaking astronomy – the study of the planets in light-years distance – should help answer one of the oldest questions of humanity: Are we really alone?
The two-year project will examine stars that are no more than 300 light-years away – and up to 100 times brighter than those discovered by Kepler. This relative proximity will allow a more detailed analysis of the exoplanets, including data such as their mass, density, composition, and the elements that make up their atmospheres.
TESS may very well be the arbiter of which planets we first examine
A revolution in astronomy takes place in the background of our lives. Humankind took 4,000 years to discover eight planets and about 20 years to discover 4,000 of them. Sara Seager, who pioneered the study of the atmosphere of large exoplanets in the late 1990s, compares the search with "a funnel to find another Earth." "We attributed this to science because of Kepler and many other transit investigations," said Seager astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and head of TESS research, said at a NASA press conference on Wednesday
The TESS launch is expected to start on Wednesday April 16th aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The ship will undergo two months of orbital positioning and instrument testing before its work begins seriously. The goal is to create a map of 85 percent of the sky and get out planets that are about 1 to 1.5 times the size of the Earth. A central question: is this size important when measuring their habitability, as here?
Beyond the planet hunt on Kepler and TESS, the universe can host many more planets than we can recognize. The current "transit" method of measuring dips in the light of a star correlates only with exoplanets in orbits of about 90 degrees; Other track inclinations would be undetectable, Seager said
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TESS was developed to work with the still-existing James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's $ 8 billion successor to the famous Hubble. Webb, however, has suffered an additional delay and will not fly until May 2020. If both operate, those exoplanets suggesting TESS are promisingly sent to the Webb for deeper analysis, NASA officials said.
The TESS "specialty" will be the study of M-class stars or red dwarfs, the coolest and most common in the galaxy, and invisible to the naked eye. "Ninety percent of the stars we know in the Milky Way are redder and cooler than our Sun," said George Ricker Jr., the main TESS researcher and MIT researcher. "That's exactly what we wanted to do for this mission."
This cooler star was also the kind of scientific excitement in 2016 when European astronomers announced they had discovered several planets around TRAPPIST-1, a cool dwarf, 40 light-years away from Earth, much smaller than ours Sun. This system is high on the list of TESS goals.
Kepler also assisted in 2011 in discovering a planet orbiting two stars, called Kepler-16b, about 2,000 light-years from Earth. It was the first confirmation of a orbiting planet or one with two suns. (Kepler-16b also means that Luke Skywalker's home planet in Star Wars, Tatooine – and its double sunsets – has at least one scientific basis.)
The TESS team is aware of how their work – the beginnings of a classification of other planets – can guide how humankind determines which far-off worlds will host viable conditions.
Ricker said that 100 stars within 20 light years of Earth are likely to have planets. If researchers ever develop a way to travel at 20 percent of the speed of light (about 37,200 miles per second), Ricker estimates that a robotic mission can build up to an exoplanet on the work now being done.
TESS, he said Well, be the referee, from which planet we first explore.