Monster Machines: If Earth 2 Exists, TESS Will Find It

The Kepler telescope that launched in 2009 is is no slouch when it comes to hunting for exoplanets. The system is charged with investigating the more than 145,000 stars within its view in the hopes of finding habitable planets but those stars constitute just 0.28 per cent of the sky. Luckily, there's a new orbital telescope from MIT that will survey the rest.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is a $US200 million satellite developed by a team from MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in collaboration with NASA, the Orbital Sciences Corp, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Aerospace Corporation, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. TESS, along with the $US55 million ISS-based Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) have both been picked up by NASA's Explorer program, the agency's longest continuously running program, to launch in 2017. Impeccable timing given that the Kepler mission has just been extended into 2016.

Once it is launched, TESS will occupy "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," principle researcher George Ricker of MIT said in a press statement. This orbit will keep TESS far enough from Earth to avoid the planet's radiation belts but close enough to maintain a high-speed datalink. That datalink is essential because TESS will be equipped with a quartet of wide-angle telescopes and CCDs -- 192 megapixels worth in all. These four telescopes will undertake an all-sky survey, "the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission," Ricker explained, to find habitable Earth to Jupiter size exoplanets orbiting the two million nearest and brightest G-type and K-type stars in our neck of the galaxy. Nearby red dwarfs will be investigated as well. "It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighbourhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth," said Ricker.

The team hopes to discover anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 exoplanet candidates via the transit method (wherein researchers look for a drop in the star's luminosity as the planet moves past). These candidates will then be studied further by space-borne telescopes like the Kepler, as well as Earth-bound systems like the HARPS spectrometer. Interestingly, TESS will store its data on-board for up to three months, only transmitting the most relevant data back to researchers on the ground.

"The selection of TESS has just accelerated our chances of finding life on another planet within the next decade," Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT added. Well, that's exciting.

[Wiki, NASA, MIT 1, 2, Kavli Foundation]

Picture: NASA