Sunday, September 28, 2014

NASA TESS: Exoplanet Mission to Hunt Down Earth-sized Worlds

Set to launch in 2017, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will monitor more than half a million stars over its two-year mission, with a focus on the smallest, brightest stellar objects.

During its observations, TESS is expected to find more than 3,000 new planets outside of our solar system, most of which will be possible for ground-based telescopes to observe.

"Bright host stars are the best ones for follow-up studies of their exoplanets to pin down planet masses, and to characterize planet atmospheres," said TESS principal investigator George Ricker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics.

"TESS should be able to find over 200 Earths and super-Earths, defined as being twice the size of Earth," said Peter Sullivan, a physics doctoral student at MIT.

"Ten to 20 of those are habitable-zone planets.”

Sullivan, who works with Ricker on TESS, led an analysis of the number of planets TESS would likely find based on the number and types of planets found by NASA's Kepler mission.

Kepler focused on a single region of the sky and studied all transiting planets within it.

TESS, on the other hand, will examine almost the entire sky over its two-year mission, but capture only the brightest stars, many of which are expected to host terrestrial planets.

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission is scheduled to launch in 2017 to hunt for Earth-size alien worlds.

Credit: MIT KAVLI Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research

TESS will travel around Earth in a highly elliptical orbit that will range as distant as the moon.

Along the way, it will use four cameras to observe a swatch of sky running from the celestial equator to the poles.

TESS will observe each swatch for approximately a month before switching to the next region.

Courtney Dressing, a doctoral student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, compares the satellite's observations to peeling an apple in vertical cuts that overlap near the stem.

Because of the overlap, stars near the pole will be observed for more than 100 days, while stars near the equator will be observed for only 27 days.

Dressing worked on a second model, based on Sullivan's work, that predicts the number of planets near Earth that pass between the sun and their host star.

"We predicted there should be about 100 transiting planets within 20 parsecs [about 65 light-years], and that roughly three of them should lie within the habitable zone of their host stars," Dressing said.

Not all of these planets will be detectable to the TESS mission. According to Dressing, the new telescope will be most sensitive to small planets orbiting stars 20 to 50 percent the size of our sun.

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