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Planet hunting: How MIT's TESS will bring search for life closer to home

Scientists with MIT's TESS project hope to build on the lessons of the successful Kepler planet-hunting mission and find planetary systems close enough for telescopes to study in detail.

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Relative sizes of Kepler habitable zone planets discovered as of April 18, 2013, in this artist's rendition provided by NASA. Scientists using NASA's Kepler space telescope have found the best candidates yet for habitable worlds beyond the solar system.

NASA Amers/JPL-Caltech/REUTERS

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The discovery of three new super-Earths by scientists with NASA's Kepler mission is helping to reveal the bounty of extrasolar planets across the Milky Way.

Now another team is set to build a new orbiting planet hunter that, during a two-year mission, will search for other worlds closer to our sun's neighborhood.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which NASA approved under its Explorer program earlier this month, will be the first orbiting observatory to hunt for planets all around the sky.

NASA and the project's scientists, led by George Ricker of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., aim to launch the observatory in April 2017.

In essence, TESS hopes to build on Kepler's pioneering role as an extrasolar-planet census taker and bring that nose count closer to home, where existing and future ground- and space-based telescopes can study in detail the planetary systems TESS uncovers.

Such studies "will allow us to really begin to figure out what their atmospheres are made of, what the temperature is like – actually characterize those planets," says Doug Hudgins, project scientist for Kepler and TESS at NASA headquarters in Washington.

This kind of analysis not only will help astronomers uncover the range of solar system configurations and test ideas on how planets form and evolve. Such up-close looks also could provide evidence for life on any of the newly discovered worlds.

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