A new NASA satellite created to detect more Earth-like worlds around stars beyond our solar system is due for launch aboard a SpaceX rocket from Florida on Monday, on a quest to expand the known inventory of so-called exoplanets that might harbor life.
Stephen Rinehart, TESS's project scientist, said of the mission: "There are some people on the mission who are very, very, very keen to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their host stars, and that would be absolutely fabulous". Of these, approximately 300 are expected to be between the size of the Earth and double the size of the Earth.
Further follow-ups on potentially habitable planets could be done using more powerful telescopes, such as NASA's yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope, which is created to analyze alien atmospheres and help scientists look for potential signs of life.
Once in space, TESS will embark on a two-year mission to survey about 85 percent of the sky, which holds about 20 million stars.
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Kepler, the first planet-hunting mission of its kind, "was launched to answer one single question: How common is a planet like Earth around a star like the Sun?" said Patricia "Padi" Boyd, director of the TESS guest investigator programme at Nasa's Goddard Spaceflight Centre. It will take Tess two weeks to circle Earth.
The satellite's goal is to extend the successful mission of the Kepler Space Telescope by observing stars and monitoring them for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. The TESS science team at MIT aims to measure the masses of at least 50 small planets whose radii are less than four times that of Earth. This dimming could signal a planet is moving in front of the star. These so-called "transits" may mean that planets are in orbit around them.
"We're expecting to find 2,000-3,000 planets that are certainly below the size of our Jupiter and majority below the size of Neptune; so, the ones that have the potential for being terrestrial, for being rocky", said Jennifer Burt from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which leads the mission.
A NASA satellite scheduled to launch on Monday is part of the U.S. space agency's search for exoplanets, including ones that could support life.