Within just 50 light-years from Earth, there are about 1,560 stars, likely orbited by several thousand planets. About a thousand of these extrasolar planets — known as exoplanets — may be rocky and have a composition similar to Earth’s. Some may even harbor life. Over 99% of these alien worlds remain undiscovered — but this is about to change.
With NASA’s new exoplanet-hunter space telescope TESS, the all-sky search is on for possibly habitable planets close to our solar system. TESS — orbiting Earth every 13.7 days — and ground-based telescopes are poised to find hundreds of planets over the next few years. This could transform astronomers’ understanding of alien worlds around us and provide targets to scan with next-generation telescopes for signatures of life. In just over a year, TESS has identified more than 1,200 planetary candidates, 29 of which astronomers have already confirmed as planets. Given TESS’s unique ability to simultaneously search tens of thousands of stars for planets, the mission is expected to yield over 10,000 new worlds.
These are exciting times for astronomers and, especially, for those of us exploring exoplanets. We are members of the planet-hunting Project EDEN, which also supports TESS’s work. We use telescopes on the ground and in space to find exoplanets to understand their properties and potential for harboring life.