NASA had a rough few years in the early 2000s and many of its flagship missions failed to deliver on their ambitious promises.
Now, a few years later, the space agency is showing signs of strength. Its budget was restored last year and its investment in space exploration is beginning to pay off.
On Tuesday, NASA announced it would launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite in April 2019.
The precision in timing of TESS raises the question of whether it will point its gaze at planets orbiting Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.
In a blog post, Principal Investigator Fiona Harrison said TESS will survey about half of all the stars in our galaxy. Its search will focus on light emitted from the exoplanets orbiting them, which are likely rocky and habitable.
“Just as TESS relies on tracking and evaluating the precise position of our sun during each orbit, it will use the same method to measure the rotation rate of other stars,” Harrison said. “We may be able to infer the exact position of these exoplanets as well.”
Although TESS has a robust science plan, it is also preparing to fulfill another important mission. It is the first spacecraft to detect exoplanets outside our solar system and NASA hopes TESS, once it launches, will help confirm the existence of more than 1,000 exoplanets beyond the solar system and pinpoint the location of Earth-like planets.
“It is not an easy job to measure the speed of stars and the mass of exoplanets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “At least we don’t have to worry about not knowing where we are.”
As TESS approaches the system of known exoplanets, it will take an unprecedented level of precision from space to be able to determine if the planets in the system are rocky and habitable.
“By the time this constellation of planets has been measured for a decade, the sky will be filled with sunlike stars and the trick will be determining their light’s precise location,” Harrison said. “The stars will become easier to see, but the rocks will remain elusive.”
The lead scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which is partnering with NASA on the project, wrote in a blog post that the key to the success of the mission will be their success in quickly identifying which exoplanets have potential for supporting life.
“The more scientific focus and time we can spend studying the Kepler Planets before launching TESS, the better,” Watts said. “It’s a bad-ass move.”