NASA has approved a $200 million mission to search for Earth-size planets orbiting the nearby stars, and the project will come into full swing within the next four years.
The space observatory, called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is scheduled for a 2017 launch.
The project, led by principal investigator George Ricker, a senior research scientist at MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI), will use an array of wide-field cameras to perform an all-sky survey to discover transiting exoplanets, ranging from Earth-sized planets to gas giants, in orbit around the brightest stars in the Sun’s neighbourhood.
“TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission,” Ricker said in a statement.
“It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighbourhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth,” he said.
TESS relies upon a number of innovations developed by the MIT team over the past seven years.
“For TESS, we were able to devise a special new ’Goldilocks’ orbit for the spacecraft – one which is not too close, and not too far, from both the Earth and the moon,” Ricker said.
As a result, every two weeks TESS approaches close enough to the Earth for high data-downlink rates, while remaining above the planet’s harmful radiation belts. This special orbit will remain stable for decades, keeping TESS’s sensitive cameras in a very stable temperature range.
With TESS, it will be possible to study the masses, sizes, densities, orbits and atmospheres of a large cohort of small planets, including a sample of rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars.
TESS will provide prime targets for further characterisation by the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as other large ground-based and space-based telescopes of the future.
“We’re very excited about TESS because it’s the natural next step in exoplanetary science,” said Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“The selection of TESS has just accelerated our chances of finding life on another planet within the next decade,” said Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at MIT.