Move over Kepler. NASA has recently green-lighted two new missions as part of its Astrophysics Explorer Program.
These come as the result of four proposals submitted in 2012. The most anticipated and high profile mission is TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
Slated for launch in 2017, TESS will search for exoplanets via the transit method, looking for faint tell-tale dips in brightness as the unseen planet passes in front of its host star. This is the same method currently employed by Kepler, launched in 2009. Unlike Kepler, which stares continuously at a single segment of the sky along the galactic plane in the direction of the constellations Cygnus, Hercules, and Lyra, TESS will be the first dedicated all-sky exoplanet hunting satellite.
The mission will be a partnership of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI).
TESS will launch onboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket released from the fuselage of a Lockheed L-1011 aircraft, the same system that deployed IBEX in 2008 & NuSTAR in 2012. NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) will also launch using a Pegasus XL rocket this summer in June.
"TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth," said George Riker, a senior researcher from MKI.
TESS will utilize four wide angle telescopes to get the job done. The effective size of the detectors onboard is 192 megapixels. TESS is slated for a two year mission. Unlike Kepler, which sits in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, TESS will be in an elliptical path in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
TESS will examine approximately 2 million stars brighter than 12th magnitude including 1,000 of the nearest red dwarfs. Not only will TESS expand the growing catalog of exoplanets, but it is also expected to find planets with longer orbital periods.
One dilemma with the transit method is that it favors the discovery of planets with short orbital periods, which are much more likely to be seen transiting their host star from a given vantage point in space.
TESS will also serve as a logical progression from Kepler to later proposed exoplanet search platforms. TESS will also discover candidates for further scrutiny by as the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2018 and the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrometer based at La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Also on the board for launch in 2017 is NICER, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer to be placed on the exterior of the International Space Station. NICER will employ an array 56 telescopes which will collect and study X-rays from neutron stars. NICER will specialize in the study of a particular sub-class of neutron star known as millisecond pulsars. The X-ray telescopes are in a configuration utilizing a set of nested glass shells looking like the layers of an onion.
Observing pulsars in the X-ray range of the spectrum will offer scientists tremendous insight into their inner workings and structure. The International Space Station offers a unique vantage point to do this sort of science. Like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), the power requirements of NICER dictate that it cannot be a free-flying satellite. X-Ray astronomy must also be done above the hindering effects of the Earth's atmosphere.
NICER will be deployed as an exterior payload aboard an ISS ExPRESS Logistics Carrier. These are unpressurized platforms used for experiments that must be directly exposed to space.
Another fascinating project working in tandem with NICER is SEXTANT, the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing And Navigation Technology. This project seeks to test the precision of millisecond pulsars for interplanetary navigation.
"They (pulsars) are extremely reliable celestial clocks and can provide high-precision timing just like the atomic signals supplied through the 26-satellite military operated Global Positioning System (GPS)," said NASA Goddard scientist Zaven Arzoumanian. The chief difficulty with relying on this system for interplanetary journeys is that the signal gets progressively weaker the farther you travel from the Earth.
"Pulsars, on the other hand, are accessible in virtually every conceivable flight regime, from LEO to interplanetary and deepest space," said NICER/SEXTANT principle investigator Keith Gendreau.
Both NICER and TESS follow the long legacy of NASA's Astrophysics Explorer Program, which can be traced all the way back to the launch Explorer 1. This was the very first U.S. satellite launched in 1958. Explorer 1 discovered the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth.
"The Explorer Program has a long and stellar history of deploying truly innovative missions to study some of the most exciting questions in space science," stated NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld. "With these missions, we will learn about the most extreme states of matter by studying neutron stars and we will identify many nearby star systems with rocky planets in the habitable zones for further study by telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope."
Of course, Grunsfeld is referring to planets orbiting red dwarf stars, which will be targeted by TESS. These are expected have a habitable zone much closer to their primary star than our own Sun. It has even been suggested by MIT scientists that the first exoplanets visited by humans on some far off date might be initially discovered by TESS. The spacecraft may also discover future targets for follow up spectroscopic analysis, the best chance of discovering alien life on an exoplanet in the next 50 years. One can imagine the excitement that a positive detection of a chemical exclusive to life as we know it such as chlorophyll in the spectra of a far of world would generate. More ominously, detection of such synthetic elements as plutonium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet might suggest we found them… but alas, too late.
But on a happier note, it'll be exciting times for space exploration to see both projects get underway. Perhaps human explorers will indeed one day visit the worlds discovered by TESS… and use navigation techniques pioneered by SEXTANT to do it!
This article was republished with permission from Universe Today
But yet they decided recently not to go back to the moon? We could do something useful on the moon. What practical knowledge would we gain from finding exo planets given our current (or conceivable future) interstellar traveling ability technology?
NASA, come on. Be a bit more pragmatic w/ our money if you're going to have any.
The moon is an ambiguous space topic. We'll go back when it's convenient. Us, not going back is not true. How do you propose we develop such presumed interstellar traveling technology without first studying what's out there to travel to? I'm listening.
Um, by first figuring out how to do interplanetary travel? I figured that was obvious.
And I really don't care that much about interstellar travel. We don't live in StarTrek world, there won't be any life out there for us to find. But we could make use of resources off planet and reduce the negative effects of mining our own. (again a reason to focus on going back to the moon over pointlessly staring into space).
@Bagpipes100, so you mean to say that of the more than 10 trillion planets in the observable universe that only one has any life on it? I know its off topic but the fact that that part of your topic immediately reminded me of the archaic concepts of the Earth being flat and of geocentricity simply made me feel obligated to remind you how small Earth is in relation to the universe. I do however know that you'll most likely continue thinking that Earth is the center of all intelligent life. If only you better fit the description of intelligent..
You're telling me there's a working model of abiogenesis? One that could give us an even remote hope of a number for a probability that life could be even on one of those 10 trillion planets?
Last time I checked 0*10 trillion = 0.
If you really do believe in abiogenesis, then I guess I can just put you in the category of people who thing raw meat produces flys, and sweaty rags produce mice.
First of all, how often does insulting a person with belittlement, such as the implication of believing in a ridiculous concept, make a difference in a debate based on simple facts. Secondly, for further knowledge let me ask you how you think life came into existence on our own planet.
Also your statement of "Last time I checked 0*10 trillion = 0." would imply that there is no life on our planet.
If you're going to disagree with generally accepted knowledge at least make an effort to think about the veracity of your current debate strategy. You do yourself no favor by making your side of the debate so easy to pick apart.
"First of all, how often does insulting a person with belittlement, such as the implication of believing in a ridiculous concept, make a difference in a debate based on simple facts."
"I know its off topic but the fact that that part of your topic immediately reminded me of the archaic concepts of the Earth being flat and of geocentricity simply made me feel obligated to remind you how small Earth is in relation to the universe. I do however know that you'll most likely continue thinking that Earth is the center of all intelligent life. If only you better fit the description of intelligent.."
You tell me how it is helpful to use mockery in debate...
BTW a flat earth was generally accepted at one point by the scientific community, so was the earth being the center of our solar system. So was sweaty rags turning into mice. So was Lamark's ideas.
If you want to talk science, leave the "generally accepted" crap out of the discussion if there isn't any science behind it. Abiogenesis has no science backing it.
You tell me where your supposed ET life comes from.
You tell me where our terrestrial life came from and we'll go from there. If you're so certain abiogenesis is false then surely you must have a feasible alternative. Simply state it and perhaps this debate can progress.
To be quite honest the topic of the debate is on abiogenesis. What I believe is not currently relevant to the debate. The challenge has been given to you to support abiogenesis. You haven't defended it with any rigor. We will not change topics to my beliefs on the matter unless you can give a better defense of your own (the topic of the debate).
I would like to remind you of the original topic of debate: the possibility of extraterrestrial life. If you recall, you are the one that narrowed the topic to the feasibility of abiogenesis being the mechanism behind life. I never explicitly stated that abiogenesis is the reason we find ourselves on this lovely rock. In other words the question is not how organisms come into existence but rather if organisms can come into existence by any means elsewhere in the universe. I bring your belief of how life began into this debate not to question the veracity of it but to question why it is that it could not happen elsewhere. Take creationism for example. If it really is true that a god created all life on Earth, why is it that this omnipresent god can not create life elsewhere. Or if this god is too weak to do so what states that other gods can not exist in other parts of the universe. The mechanism by which life begins is not an integral part of this debate, simply a mean to an end. I only questioned what your belief was to make my point more meaningful.
Even in the case of creationism, there would be no reason to think there is, unless of course the historical record believed to be a true account of creation stated specifically there was life created on other planets.
Though I am not aware of any other case which makes a logically coherent framework to have ET life.
The fact of the matter is that there is neither sufficient evidence to prove or disprove ET life. This being said however it is naive and illogical to believe that life absolutely can not exist elsewhere in the universe given the statistics. It is the epitome of naiveté for one to believe that on trillions of planets life can only come into existence on one especially given the billions of years the universe has existed and the innumerable years it will continue to exist. I do not claim it does exist without a doubt but I certainly see the possibility for it to. You however definitively rule it out without evidence to support your claim.
"The fact of the matter is that there is neither sufficient evidence to prove or disprove ET life. This being said however it is naive and illogical to believe that life absolutely can not exist elsewhere in the universe given the statistics."
Or believe that it can exist elsewhere. Just because we have it here says nothing about the probability of it being elsewhere. If there isn't sufficient evidence to prove it, there isn't sufficient evidence to believe it exists. If you were a creationists then prehaps you could site a historical account that suggests there was. Do you?
"billions of years the universe has existed and the innumerable years it will continue to exist." Now you're going back to speculation w/o scientific evidence and confusing the issue.
You confuse acceptance of a possibility with definitive belief. I do have not said that life does exist elsewhere, I have merely stated that it is a possibility.
"If there isn't sufficient evidence to prove it, there isn't sufficient evidence to believe it exists." You actually are correct in saying this but you are taking the lack of supporting evidence as sufficient evidence to rule out the possibility.
Also what sane person believes in creationism? I wad simply illustrating that even such an unsound belief can have the possibility for ET life.