Check NASA’s catalog of exoplanets and you’ll see that just under 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed so far. Expect that number to rise massively over the next few years as data from NASA’s exoplanet-detecting spacecraft reveals a staggering amount of alien worlds, according to a new study.
A paper published on preprint service arXiv reveals that NASA’s $287 million Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) discovered about 5,000 planets and candidate planets in its first three and a half years of observations.
An exoplanet is a planet in orbit around another star, therefore beyond our solar system.
Launched in mid-2018 by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the TESS spacecraft quickly completed its first mission; to identify exoplanets orbiting bright stars in the northern sky within 300 light-years of Earth using its Wide Field Telescope.
In mid-2020 it began its first extended mission – to observe exoplanets around the solar system’s ecliptic plane – and in September this year it will begin a second extended mission to do the same for the southern skies.
What more will he find? Many, according to the paper’s authors, who used simulations of detectable planets to calculate that TESS will gradually reveal many thousands more exoplanets, and not just from observations yet to be made.
The paper estimates that from the data already collected and the observations that are planned to be made, we can expect astronomers to eventually identify approximately:
- 4,719 exoplanets from its “main mission” (2018-2020)
- 3,707 exoplanets from its first extended mission (2022-2024)
- 4,093 exoplanets from its second extended mission (2022-2024)
That’s a staggering total of 12,519 exoplanets!
By the end of its second extended mission, TESS will be in its seventh year, by which time it will have observed nearly all of the sky.
The authors calculate that at the end of its three missions, its exoplanet transport will reveal that G-type stars – stars like our Sun – are the most common exoplanet hosts. And while most of the exoplanets found will be giant planets, as the mission unfolds it will find more and smaller planets “including dozens similar to the size of Earth”, we read in the newspaper.
TESS will also find hot Neptunes, giant planets around red dwarf stars, and planets that take more than 500 days to orbit their stars, the authors say.
Exactly these kinds of exoplanets were missing in the data provided by NASA’s $600 million Kepler Space Telescope, a key mission for exoplanet science that launched in 2009 and observed nearly 200,000 stars in a tiny piece of sky between 2009 and 2018.
Kepler searched for planets transiting their host stars, identifying a staggering 2,392 exoplanets before suffering a technical fault. However, Kepler did something incredible: he showed us all that every star in the night sky, on average, has at least one planet.
TESS now looks set to further revolutionize the way we think about exoplanets — and life — in the galaxy beyond the solar system.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.