NASA’s planet-hunting mission has found 5,000 possible alien worlds in less than four years


It’s been a busy four years for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey satellite (TESS) and the scientists looking for planets in its data.The mission just reached a major discovery milestone, passing the 5,000 objects of interest, or TOI, the team calls TESS, which includes exoplanet candidates and other interesting signals.Astronomers select objects from these TOIS for more detailed studies and use other instruments to get a better idea of what TESS might see.”This time last year TESS found just over 2,400 TOIs.Today, TESS is more than twice that.”Michelle Kunimoto, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a statement.(MIT scientists lead the TESS task, while Kunimoto is leading a project called Faint Star Search, which contributes many of the recently added TOI.)”I’m excited to see thousands of people over the next few years!”So far, 176 TOIs have been confirmed as planets since TESS launched in April 2018.Because confirming exoplanet candidates takes more time to observe after the initial TOI discovery, scientists expect planet confirmation to lag behind candidate detection.TESS’s predecessor, the Kepler Space Telescope, for example, has identified more than 2,000 as-yet-unidentified planet candidates, despite completing its observations in 2013.(The mission’s data includes more than 2,700 confirmed planets.)When TESS was launched, it was aiming for a two-year mission, with the first half of the project shifting in the southern hemisphere and the second half in the northern.Since the spacecraft’s mission was extended in July 2020, it has repeated this pattern;The team hopes to keep watching until at least 2025.Because TESS spends a month at a time staring at small, bright stars in every patch of sky, it’s best suited to spot hot planets close to their stars, since those objects tend to orbit fastest.The mission’s discoveries so far include multiple planets, one of which lasts just 16 Earth hours a year.Other TESS discoveries so far include a group of five planets orbiting in rhythm, a planet that could have water clouds, and planets that could be devoured by their aging stars.”Based on data from the first year of the extended mission, we identified dozens of TOI candidates identified during the main mission,” Katharine Hesse, TOI manager at MIT, said in the statement.”I’m excited to see how many multi-planet systems can be found during the remainder of the extended mission and with TESS in the years to come.”

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