SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

TESS embarks on space mission to discover new planets

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

NASA has put a new set of eyes in space to search for other worlds. The Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite, or TESS, had countless earthly eyes full of excitement following its launch, including Rutgers physics professor Saurabh Jha.

“It’s a great leap forward in our ability to understand planets outside our solar system, so exoplanets, planets around other stars,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to it.”

In 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope.

“It was launched to answer one question: How common is a planet like Earth around a star like the sun?” explained Padi Boyd, TESS guest project investigator at NASA.

Kepler is credited with finding more than 5,000 exoplanet candidates and confirming nearly half. However, Kepler is running out of fuel, so TESS is replacing it. TESS has four sensitive cameras to look at almost the entire sky.

“TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study. It’s going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jha is among the humans who for centuries have wondered whether we’re alone in the universe. The question for the professor: Are we getting closer to identifying whether there’s life out there like ours on Earth?

“Finally, now we are in a place where we can actually get some data about that,” Jha said.

Stephen Rinehart is TESS’ project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“We’re going to discover a diversity of exoplanets. We’re going to rocky planets. We’re going to find gas planets, ice balls, who knows what else. That’s one of the most exciting things, maybe we’ll find something that we don’t expect. But once we’ve found all these, some of them are going to be planets in the habitable zones of their host stars. So with TESS we’re going to know that there are planets that might be habitable. We’re going to be able to say that they’re not ‘not habitable.’ TESS is the first step toward finding habitable planets,” said Rinehart.

In other words, a place that has the right temperature for liquid water and that’s rocky.

“We think that planets up to about one and a half times the size of the Earth are likely to be rocky, based on the results from Kepler,” said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz.

Jha is a renowned astronomer who’s fascinated by the sophisticated capability of looking into space and collecting information.

“We want to know what all kind of planets are out there, but of course as humans and egocentric people, and for us personally, we’d love to find another Earth. We’d love to know there was another place like Earth that could be hospitable to life, or maybe even a place that we might go to,” he said.

NASA plans to release to the public planet candidates that TESS finds and rely on ground-based telescopes to observe and confirm whether they’re actually planets. If they are, they’ll be measured for their mass and other features to determine whether they’re rocky or something else. TESS’ scheduled mission will last two years.