The Search for Other Earths
Thursday, October 17, 2013
News Feature

Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) are among those drafting the target list for NASA's next planet-finding telescope, the orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which will search the Earths galactic neighborhood for planets that might support life.

TESS cleared a major hurdle in April, gaining NASA approval for final design and implementation. Pending a series of reviews, TESS is expected to launch sometime in early 2018 and focus on Earth's stellar neighbors, 500,000 of the nearest and brightest stars. Their proximity will raise the chances for follow-up observations of systems that show the telltale dimming in starlight that indicates a planet is crossing the star's face.

Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer David Latham, the project's science director, said the CfA's work eventually will involve as many as 36 scientists, fellows, and students, as well as possibly hundreds more from around the world who will pore over data, which will be released publicly within months of being collected.

"These are the nearest and best and brightest examples of transiting planets we'll ever have, at least from the Earth," Latham said.

The Center for Astrophysics is one of several partners on the project. The effort's principal investigator is George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues there will play a leading role in designing and building the instruments. Other key partners include NASA, which will manage the project and provide the launch vehicle, as well as the private contractors Orbital Sciences Corp., and Space Telescope Science Institute.