New NASA planet hunter can find 10,000 alien worlds in two years

An artistic rendering of the TESS spacecraft in orbit around the Earth.

(NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

NASA’s newest planet-hunting telescope has been hard at work collecting the first data-but just how many planets would hunt?

According to new estimates compiled by scientists on the team behind the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, the instrument has to identify the approximately 10,000 planets in the two-year mission; 3,500 of them must be smaller than Neptune, the mission’s focus. And if the telescope can remain at work for longer than the current plans, the numbers will only go up.

The new estimates should help scientists working on the mission to a better planning of the use of the spacecraft. The forecast can also help the team argue that the case for the renewal of the mission after the first two-year mandate. [NASA’s New Planet-Hunting Telescope Captures a Comet ]

“There is no reason to get the spaceship to stop working after two years” — then, of course, the price tag, Jessie Christiansen, who studies exoplanets at Caltech and NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, told Christiansen is involved in the mission, but not with the new study. The new estimates, which describe three different options for extending the mission, will also help determine which holds the most promise when that time comes, she added.

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Of course, this is not the first estimates, scientists have made of how many planets TESS will be on the spot. But the new forecast takes advantage of an important new set of data is a gigantic party of the measurements made by the European mission called Gaia, which is to determine the location of more than 1.5 billion stars in the Milky way.

That card is valuable for TESS, because it tells astronomers exactly how far away a star is, Christiansen said. Couple that information with the star’s observed brightness, and the scientists can figure out how large the object is. That is valuable because TESS is the best on the spot of the planets around the smaller star — so by processing the data, scientists can better play on the instrument, the strong points, Christiansen said.

The new estimates will help the science team to ensure the mission is still on course to succeed at its primary task: measure the mass of 50 planets that are smaller than Neptune. As eye-catching 10.000 planets are the most important here is the 3,500 sub-Neptune worlds, Christiansen said. Those planets will be TESS’ proving grounds in terms of the formal requirements, and will help scientists understand how small, rocky planets are formed.

These estimates used a new expected tendency for dissemination of other solar systems, or how dramatically their planets deviate from a perfectly flat disk of jobs. That orbital cleanliness of influence on the number of planets that TESS’ transit method can identify. This method makes use of the small dip in the brightness of the star when the planet is between the sun and the instrument.

“If you are an alien civilization looking at the sun, you would not really see all eight planets,” Christiansen said — you would see the transits of only a handful of planets that happened to line up perfectly from your alien viewpoint. “We have to guess what that tendency spread looks like in other solar systems.”

Our solar system has a spread of about 7 degrees, but new analyses suggest that this number is more dramatic than the average.

Even better than the estimate itself is the fact that it will not be long before scientists start checking which of 10,000 worlds. TESS is the sending of the first data to Earth today (Aug. 8). And while the team will look through the data carefully before connecting it to the public to verify that everything is working properly and that there are no problems — even just that first series of observations must introduce scientists to new worlds, Christiansen said.

“I think we can safely start finding planets in that first batch of data,” she said.

The research is described in an article posted on the preprint server on the 30th of July.

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