NASA goes in search of new planets likely to house life


A new satellite hunter of exoplanets is about to take flight. NASA is scheduled to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS), its new space telescope, on April 16-17, in search of Earth-sized planets that could potentially harbor life. TESS will take over from Kepler, the first such telescope launched in 2009 by the US Space Agency, soon running out of fuel. In nine years, the latter discovered at least 2,343 exoplanets , about thirty of which are said to be “habitable” because they are located at a sufficiently good distance from their star so that if the water exists on their surface, it is present in the liquid state. Kepler’s successor must be propelled into space at 18:32 (00:32, Paris time) by a Space X Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, weather permitting. The launch is to follow live on the official website and the SpaceX YouTube channel. The shooting window is barely 30 seconds, a second slot is scheduled Tuesday, April 17 at 18:32, or 0:13, Paris time.

Two years to patrol space The stakes are important for NASA. Over the next two years, TESS, which cost $ 337 million, will be responsible for scan over 200,000 of the brightest stars beyond our solar system , looking for exoplanets in their orbit.

Like Kepler, TESS is based on the principle of transits, ie the photometric study of stars . It detects planets as they pass in front of their star, whose light they momentarily dim. This then allows astronomers to draw conclusions about their size, mass and orbit. With four cameras at 16.4 megapixels, the satellite will be able to review a portion of the celestial sphere 350 times larger than Kepler. Observations should begin within two months. At the end of the mission, 20 million stars and 10 million galaxies have been observed.
In search of new worlds The US space agency estimates that after the first two years of the program, TESS will discover 20,000 exoplanets , of which about fifty the size of the Earth and nearly 500 that would be twice as large as the blue planet. “One could even find planets in the orbit of stars that can be seen with the naked eye,” Elisa Quintana, TESS researcher, told reporters on April 15. “In the next few years, we can probably go out and point a star knowing that it has a planet”. A few decades ago, the idea of ​​finding habitable planets was a pure fantasy, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. “Humans have always wondered if we are alone in the universe, and until 25 years ago the only planets we knew were the eight of our solar system,” he said, on the eve launch of TESS. “But since then we have found thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and we think that all the stars in our galaxy must have their own family of planets,” he said.
Prepare the ground at the James Webb telescope The TESS mission will pave the way for the next up-and-coming change for terrestrial and space telescopes, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope , which will succeed Hubble in 2020 to observe the planets thus detected even closer. The latter may be able to detect molecular signatures of the atmospheres of the exoplanets including the signature of the presence of life. “TESS is a bridge between what we have already learned about exoplanets and what we will learn in the future,” said Jeff Volosin, project director at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “With the hope of one day, in the coming decades, to identify the potential conditions for the existence of life outside our solar system”.

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