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NASA To Fund Mission To Find Earth-like Planet

Apr 08, 2013 10:22 AM EDT

NASA announced Friday two new projects headed for a 2017 launch, one of which, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), will cover an estimated 400 times as much sky than any previous mission as it locates planets orbiting nearby stars.

Led by George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), scientists plan to focus the spacecraft's efforts on examining planets located in the habitable zones of their host stars and specifically those similar in size to Earth.

In the past, sky surveys carried out by ground-based telescopes have mainly located giant planets while NASA's Kepler has recently begun uncovering smaller ones, though they have largely been faint and difficult to study. For this reason, scientists are tasking TESS with examining small planets around the very brightest stars in the sky.

As Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science at physics at MIT, explained, "The selection of TESS has just accelerated our chances of finding life on another planet within the next decade."

TESS will be equipped with a variety of wide-field cameras and will report on planets' mass, size, densities, orbits and atmospheres every two weeks when its orbit brings it close enough to Earth for high data-downlink rates - an orbit, scientists say, that will remain stable for decades.

After performing this preliminary work, researchers plan on following up on the spacecraft's discoveries using the James Webb Space Telescope along with other telescopes "of the future," as stated in MIT's press release on the subject.

In addition to Ricker and Seager, the project will enlist the help of Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at MIT.

"We are very excited about TESS because it's the natural next step in exoplanetary science," Winn said.

The project is capped at $200 million of funding through NASA's Explorer Program.

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