Science

Kepler's Death Will Not End Hunt For Earth-like Planets

By James Maynard , May 22, 2013 03:56 PM EDT
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Kepler, the planet-hunting space telescope, suffered a catastrophic failure on May 14, but that does not mean that astronomers' search for alien worlds beyond our Solar System is over.

NASA committed $200 million dollars to the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in April. This mission, due to be launched in 2018, is tasked with performing the first-ever full-sky survey of its type ever made from space.

TESS will search for alien worlds by searching for regular, periodic brightening and dimming of stars caused by a planet passing between its home star and the Earth. This is the same method of planetary detection used by the now-possibly-defunct Kepler observatory. Kepler was limited to viewing just one area of the sky, but TESS will have no such restrictions, and is scheduled to look at approximately two million stars during the life of the mission.

The CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (Cheops) is the Eurpopean Space Agency's newest satellite design in the hunt for extra-solar planets. This mission will "follow up" on stars already known to have planets circling them, looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. It is due for launch in 2017.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which was recently fitted with a sensitive infrared camera, will also be on the hunt for other worlds. It will work in conjunction with TESS in the hunt for alien Earths.

"Kepler was supposed to deliver... the numbers, the frequency of planets the size of the Earth around solar-type stars in the habitable zone... Now we want to find the nearest ones," explained astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov. "There, we need TESS to discover them, and then we need James Webb to analyze them."

In Chile, the High-Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) is searching for alien worlds from the comfort of the ground. This spectrograph is attached to the 142-inch telescope at La Silla. The device breaks the light from the distant worlds into their component colors in order to analyze planetary chemical makeup from afar. HARPS went online in 2006, and is maintained by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

A similar mechanism was recently used on the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory.

Gautam Vasisht of Jet Propulsion Laboartories said, "In just one hour, we were able to get precise composition information about four planets around one overwhelmingly bright star."

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