Since 256 BCE, when Timocharis made the first recorded observation of Mercury, humankind has been on the hunt to find and study other planets. In April of 2018, NASA launched their Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), allowing us to see farther than ever before.
Eyes In The Sky
NASA has been watching the heavens from orbit since December of 1968 when they launched their first ultraviolet satellite, OAO-2 (Stargazer). In April of 1990, they sent up their largest orbital observation satellite onboard the space shuttle Discovery, the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA’s many satellites scan the sky’s myriad objects across the light spectrum, from gamma to radio frequencies.
Other telescopes including Hubble and Kepler have been searching the skies for exoplanets. Unlike these satellites, however, TESS’s sole job is to search for these potential life-bearing planets.
This new satellite is on a two-year expedition to find exoplanets that could potentially harbor life. Its wide-field camera will pan across large swathes of the sky, seeking out and charting the locations of any rocky planets in their star’s habitable zone. Astronomers will then look into the most favorable of TESS’s candidates with the hopes of making the groundbreaking discovery of life outside of Earth.
The orbital scope’s sights are set between 30 and 300 light-years away from Earth. The James Webb Observatory and other telescopes, both on Earth and in orbit, will analyze the atmospheric conditions, masses, and densities of these top-tier exoplanets.
How Likely Are We To Find Life?
For years, we’ve been searching for extra-terrestrial life, and as technology advances, our odds seem to get better and better. Since the beginning of September 2018, TESS had discovered three new exoplanets, one of which is located in the same system as a previously-discovered super-Jupiter. Its closest discovery is a planet slightly larger than our own, located a mere 48.6 light-years from Earth.
Over the course of its research, TESS is expected to find over 20,000 exoplanets, quintupling the current known number and then some. With an eye for 500,000 stars and high aspirations, TESS is humanity’s best shot yet at finding another habitable planet among the stars, and with it, the possibility of life.