NASA will launch a new space telescope to search for thousands of undiscovered Earth-like exoplanets outside our solar system, according to plans published by the space agency.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will do an initial search of these exoplanets, potentially identifying thousands during its projected two-year mission. Other NASA space and ground based telescopes will verify the discoveries, and begin the search for life on those exoplanets.
“The problem is that we’ve had very few exoplanet targets that are good for follow-up. TESS will change that,” Dr. Stephen Rinehart, a project scientist on TESS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in a press statement.
TESS will work with other NASA space telescopes finds new exoplanets by detecting very small decreases in a star’s brightness, which occurs when the planet passes in front of their sun. Scientists then use statistical analysis to examine the changes and verify the planet. Other telescopes will then be able to use TESS’s data able to observe chemical signals in an exoplanets atmosphere, allowing scientists to search for signs of life on the distant worlds.
“There are a couple of things we like to see as a potential for habitability – one of them is water, which is probably the single most important, because as far as we know, all life that we’re familiar with depends on water in some way,” Rinehart continued. “The other is methane, which on our Earth is produced almost entirely biologically. When you start seeing certain combinations of all of these things appearing together – water, methane, ozone, oxygen – it gives you a hint that the chemistry is out of equilibrium. Naturally, planets tend to be chemically stable. The presence of life throws off this balance.”
NASA’s old Kepler Space Telescope has already found and verified 1,284 new planets outside our solar system. Roughly 550 of the new exoplanets could be rocky planets like Earth based on their size. Nine of these exoplanets orbit in their stars’ “Goldilocks Zones,” the region around a star that has just the right conditions for liquid water to be found on the planet’s surface.
The Kepler telescope has been in orbit since 2009, and it’s successor telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is only halfway completed after a long history of major cost overruns and delays. JWST is relatively tiny compared to larger Earth-based telescopes, but its infrared capabilities and position above the atmosphere could allow it to locate potentially habitable planets around other stars, perhaps even extraterrestrial life. When launched, JWST will work with TESS to verify discoveries.
The JWST was initially projected to cost $1.6 billion and should have been launched in 2011. The Government Accountability Office now estimates the final cost at $8.8 billion, and NASA has now scheduled the telescope for an October 2018 launch, but the project is at risk of further delays. The telescope cost taxpayers $645.4 million in 2015 alone, accounting for roughly 13 percent of NASA’s annual science budget.
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