TESS probe finds its first potential planets

TESS spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, with an alien sun and planet in the background. (NASA / GSFC Illustration)

Astronomers on the team for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission, or TESS, are reporting their first potential planet discoveries, just days after the spacecraft’s first science image was unveiled.

The first reported candidate planet was detected orbiting a star known as Pi Mensae, a sunlike yellow dwarf star nearly 60 light-years from Earth that was already known to harbor a world that’s more than 10 times as massive as Jupiter.

The newly detected prospect is closer to its parent star in the southern constellation Mensa, making a complete orbit every 6.3 Earth days.

In a paper published on the ArXiv pre-print website and submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the team’s scientists say Pi Mensae c appears to be about twice as wide as Earth and 4.5 times as massive.

Its density is estimated as roughly equal to water’s density, which suggests the planet is a super-Earth that “may have held on to a significant atmosphere,” the scientists say.

The second candidate planet orbits a red dwarf star known as LHS 3844, 49 light-years away in the constellation Indus. LHS 3844 b is thought to be a “hot Earth,” with a diameter about a third wider than Earth’s. It swings around its sun every 11 hours.

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Scientists spot planet orbiting Spock’s home star

Planet at HD 26965
An artist’s conception shows a super-Earth in orbit around HD 26965, which is Mr. Spock’s home star in “Star Trek” lore. (University of Florida Illustration)

Has the planet Vulcan been found? Vulcan’s most famous fictional inhabitant, Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame, would certainly raise an eyebrow if he heard that astronomers have detected a potentially habitable super-Earth orbiting the star that’s associated with him.

The world orbits a sunlike star that’s a mere 16 light-years away, known as HD 26965 or 40 Eridani A, according to the team behind the Dharma Planet Survey.

In the current Star Trek canon, 40 Eridani A is the star that harbors Spock’s home planet. Some early references pointed to a different star, known as Epsilon Eridani(which is also thought to host at least one exoplanet). But in a 1991 essay, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and a group of astronomers argued that 40 Eridani A, the brightest star in a triple-star system, was a better fit because its 4 billion years of existence provided a wider window for pointy-eared intelligent life to evolve.

The latest findings suggest Roddenberry made the right choice: The planet found at 40 Eridani A is roughly twice Earth’s size, completes an orbit around its parent star every 42 Earth days, and lies just inside the star’s optimal habitable zone, said University of Florida astronomer Jian Ge.

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NASA unveils first science images from TESS probe

TESS images
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, captured this snapshot of the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) and the star R Doradus (left) with a single detector on one of its four wide-field cameras on Aug. 7. (NASA / MIT / TESS Photo)

The first science images from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite focus on a strip of southern sky that includes the two nearest dwarf galaxies and plenty of potential targets in the probe’s planet search.

“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters, said today in a news release. “This ‘first light’ science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”

TESS was launched from Florida in April by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the mission team has been spending the past few months getting the spacecraft ready for what’s expected to be a two-year mission.

The newly released imagery was captured by TESS’ four wide-field cameras during a 30-minute session on Aug. 7. The mosaic shows parts of a dozen constellations in the southern hemisphere, from Capricornus to Pictor.

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Planet-hunting space telescope wins vote of support

Telescope with starshade
An artist’s conception shows a planet-hunting space telescope accompanied by an umbrella-like starshade that blocks the glare of the planet’s parent star. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

NASA should add a large, technologically advanced space telescope to its lineup to capture direct images of Earthlike planets beyond our solar system, astronomers say in a congressionally mandated report issued today.

The report, published under the aegis of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, also calls on the National Science Foundation to invest in the next-generation Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The GMT is being built in Chile, with completion set for 2025. The TMT is also due to go into service in the mid-2020s, although the current plan to build it on the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano has run into controversy.

Authors of the report, led by Harvard’s David Charbonneau and Ohio State University’s B. Scott Gaudi, voiced support for two space telescopes already in the works — NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST. They also said NASA’s recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, would provide valuable information about Earth-size exoplanets as well.

But the report makes clear that the search for alien planets will have to focus down on direct images of planets, as well as detailed analysis of exoplanet atmospheres, in order to address questions about the existence of life beyond our solar system.

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Kepler probe suspends planet hunt to send data

Kepler space telescope
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Kepler space telescope. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI Illustration)

NASA has hit the pause button on observations by its most prolific planet-hunting probe, the Kepler space telescope, so that it can download 51 days’ worth science data without interruption. The reason? Kepler’s fuel tanks are close to empty. After the download, Kepler will resume data gathering — that is, assuming there’s any fuel left.

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NASA’s planet-hunting probe sends first test image

TESS test image
This test image from one of the four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, captures a swath of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. (NASA / MIT / TESS Photo)

One month after its launch, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite has sent back an initial test image that shows more than 200,000 stars in the southern sky.

TESS’ image was taken by one of its cameras with a two-second exposure. The picture is centered on the constellation Centaurus, with the edge of the dark Coalsack Nebula at upper right and the star Beta Centauri prominent along the lower edge.

The picture provides only a hint of what TESS will be seeing once it starts delivering science-quality images next month. When all four wide-field cameras are in operation, TESS’ images should cover more than 400 times as much of the sky.

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SpaceX launches NASA’s planet-hunting TESS probe

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lofts NASA’s TESS probe into space. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX has launched NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, kicking off a mission aimed at surveying nearly the entire sky for exoplanets.

The probe rose into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, sent up from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:51 p.m. ET (3:51 p.m. PT) today.

TESS was supposed to take off on April 16, but the launch teams said they wanted more time for guidance, navigation and control analysis. No issues were reported this time around.

Minutes after launch, SpaceX landed the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster on an autonomous drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You,” hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic. Over the past two years, such landings have become routine.

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SpaceX, NASA delay planet-hunting probe’s liftoff

SpaceX Falcon 9
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 sits on its launch pad. (SpaceX via YouTube)

NASA and SpaceX say they’ll take more time to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey System, or TESS, just to make sure the $337 million mission will be on the right track to hunt for planets beyond our solar system.

TESS’ liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket had been scheduled for today, but in an online update, NASA said “launch teams are standing down today to conduct additional guidance, navigation and control analysis.”

The launch was retargeted for April 18, with an anticipated liftoff time of 6:51 p.m. ET (3:51 p.m. PT).

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How scientists are expanding the SETI spectrum

Habitable planet map
This map from the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory shows the known planetary systems within about 100 light-years from Earth, plotted on a logarithmic scale. The systems with potentially habitable exoplanets are highlighted with red circles. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Twenty years after the movie “Contact” brought the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, to the big screen, it’s dawning on astronomers that the real-world plotline might turn out to be totally different 20 years from now.

So far, SETI has been dominated by radio telescope surveys looking for anomalous patterns that may point to alien transmissions. But SETI’s practitioners are realizing that E.T. may make its presence known in other ways.

Over the next 20 years, or 200 years, SETI may come to stand for sensing extraterrestrial irregularities, ranging from unusual atmospheric chemistry to higher-than-expected thermal emissions. The telltale signs of life beyond our solar system may even be associated with phenomena we haven’t yet come across.

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Messages and music beamed to alien super-Earth

Beaming signals to GJ273 b
The target of the “Sonar Calling” binary-coded radio transmission is a planet known as GJ273 b. (METI International Illustration / Danielle Futselaar)

Scientists and artists have banded together to beam coded radio transmissions toward a star that has a potentially habitable planet, just 12.4 light-years from Earth.

“Sónar Calling GJ273b” is the latest effort to communicate with aliens, 43 years since the first attempt was made using the 1,000-foot Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

The “Sónar Calling” messages were sent on three successive days, Oct. 16-18, from the 32-meter EISCAT radio antenna in Tromsø, Norway, just inside the Arctic Circle. Each transmission was directed at peak power of 2 megawatts toward a red dwarf star known as GJ273, or Luyten’s Star, in the constellation Canis Major.

Astronomers say Luyten’s Star harbors a planet that’s more than twice as massive as Earth, in an orbit where water could conceivably exist in liquid form. “Sónar Calling” aims to communicate with any radio-savvy life forms on that planet, called GJ273 b.

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