To Seek Out New Life: How the TESS Mission Will Accelerate the Hunt for Livable Alien Worlds

The Kavli Foundation, Thursday, May 17, 2018
The just-launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) could soon provide the breakthrough
identificationof dozens of potentially habitable exoplanets right in our cosmic backyard

An artist’s impression of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and some of its planetary quarry. (Credit: NASA)An artist’s impression of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and some of its planetary quarry. (Credit: NASA)

A NEW ERA IN THE SEARCH FOR EXOPLANETS—and the alien life they might host—has begun. Aboard a SpaceX rocket, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched on April 18, 2018, at 6:51 PM EDT. The TESS mission, developed with support from The Kavli Foundation, is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Over the next two years, TESS will scan the 200,000 or so nearest and brightest stars to Earth for telltale dimming caused when exoplanets cross their stars' faces. Among the thousands of new worlds TESS is expected to discover should be hundreds ranging in size from about one to two times Earth. These small, mostly rocky planets will serve as prime targets for detailed follow-up observations by other telescopes in space and on the ground. 

The goal for those telescopes will be to characterize the newfound exoplanets' atmospheres. The particular mixtures of gases in an atmosphere will reveal key clues about a world's climate, history, and if it might even be hospitable to life. 

The Kavli Foundation spoke with two scientists on the TESS mission to get an inside look at its development and revolutionary science aim of finding the first "Earth twin" in the universe. 

The participants were:

  • GREG BERTHIAUME – is the Instrument Manager for the TESS mission, in charge of ensuring the spacecraft's cameras and other equipment will perform their science tasks. Berthiaume is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory and he is also a member of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. 
  • DIANA DRAGOMIR – is an observational astronomer whose focus is on small exoplanets. Dragomir is a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.  

The following is an edited transcript of their roundtable discussion. The participants have been provided the opportunity to amend or edit their remarks.

THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: Starting with the big picture, why is TESS important?

DIANA DRAGOMIR: TESS is going to find thousands of exoplanets, which might not sound like a big deal, because we already know of nearly 4,000. But most of those discovered planets are too far away for us to do anything more than just know their size and that they are there. The difference is that TESS will be looking for planets around stars very close to us. When stars are closer to us, they’re also brighter from our point of view, and that helps us discover and study the planets around them much more easily. 

GREG BERTHIAUME: One of the things TESS is doing is helping to answer the fundamental question, "Is there other life in the universe?" People have been wondering that for thousands of years. Now TESS won’t answer that question directly, but it’s a step, just like Diana mentioned, on the path to getting us the data to see where there might be other life out there. That’s something we’ve been struggling with and questioning since we were able to come up with questions.

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