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NASA advances search for extraterrestrial life

17 April 2018

The satellite named Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will be launched on board on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.

Further follow-ups on potentially habitable planets could be done using more powerful telescopes, such as NASA's yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope, which is created to analyze alien atmospheres and help scientists look for potential signs of life.

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will find exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars, events that are called transits.

NASA is on the hunt for new planets, and with luck, that journey will begin today.

From that vantage point, TESS will keep tabs on 200,000 of the brightest stars in our celestial neighborhood, looking for the telltale changes in brightness that result when a planet crosses over the star's disk. "Now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars". When finished, it's expected that TESS will have surveyed 85% of the visible sky on its planet-hunting mission.

"Humans have wondered forever whether we were alone in the universe, and until 25 years ago the only planets we knew about were the eight in our own solar system", he told reporters on the eve of the TESS launch.

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"A few decades ago, the idea of finding habitable planets was a pure fantasy", says Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division.

In terms of exoplanets, NASA's Kepler space telescope has observed more than 300,000 stars and found more than 4,000 exoplanet candidates since it launched in 2009.

At a total cost of $337 million, the washing-machine-size spacecraft is built to search the nearest, brightest stars for signs of periodic dimming. Kepler stared at 250,000 distant stars in a cross-shaped area equal to 0.25 percent of the sky, and identified the signatures of more than 5,000 confirmed planets and candidates.

The next step is for ground-based and space telescopes to peer even closer.The Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2020, should be able to reveal more about planets' mass, density and the makeup of their atmosphere - all clues to habitability.

Ricker said: 'TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study.

NASA advances search for extraterrestrial life