After the stunning discoveries of Kepler, a satellite named TESS is ready to find worlds like ours.
Just 25 years ago, no one knew for sure whether the stars dotting our night skies had anything circling them that resembled planets, let alone one like Earth.
Then came a NASA planet-seeker called Kepler, which starting in 2009 began finding intriguing, tell-tale blips around stars other than our sun. Almost everywhere its cameras looked, a new blip was discovered, signifying a rich abundance of “exoplanets.” Kepler’s prodigious planet-spotting—more than 1,000 of the 3,700 discovered to date—was among the first astronomical endeavors to show that the basic pattern of our solar system appears to be common elsewhere.
Now, the successor to Kepler is here. This planet-hunter, a 700-pound spacecraft called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is scheduled to launch next month and focus on stars nearer and brighter than those analyzed by Kepler. TESS will operate in a unique elliptical orbit, synchronized with the moon, to aim its four sophisticated cameras at roughly 200,000 stars. The mission is to detect brief decreases in brightness caused by a planet cutting across a star. In this orbit, the TESS spacecraft will remain stable for decades.