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NASA's Newest Exoplanet Hunter Spots "Super-Earth" & "Hot Earth

NASA's TESS space telescope will look for "cosmic winks" as a sign of planets outside our solar system. Photo: NASA
NASA's TESS space telescope will look for "cosmic winks" as a sign of planets outside our solar system. Photo: NASA

A space-based telescope has discovered two new exoplanet candidates -- planets that exist outside our solar system. The discovery comes just five months after launching from Cape Canaveral.

Scientists announced the finding of a “super-Earth,” a planet about twice the size of our own Earth, and a “hot-Earth,” a planet that orbits its star closely and could be much like Venus.

The telescope spotted these planets by staring at a distance star. As the exoplanet crosses between the telescopes camera and the star, the light dims.

TESS’s predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, discovered thousands of possible exoplanets. Florida Tech’s Dan Batcheldor says TESS is on its way to making similar discoveries.

“This is just the first small step to uncovering a treasure trove of planetary systems that are the nearest planetary systems to Earth,” said Batchledor.

Scientists will confirm the findings with ground-based telescopes, and eventually from giant space-based observatories like the soon-to-be launched James Webb Space Telescope.

The mission is only in the first weeks of its science campaign. It spent the past few months getting into the correct orbit and testing the instruments on board.

“The big takeaway is that TESS is working as designed," said Batchledor. "It’s getting great data.”

The two candidates discovered by TESS are about 49 and 60 light years away. The discovery and followup is just the start of scientific understanding of exoplanets.

Right now, the planets show up as dots on a plot. Scientists can analyze how the light interacts with the planet and determine what the exoplanet is made of, and if it has an atmosphere, but they don't know what it looks like.

"Really the holy grail is going to be years from now, following up on these systems and trying to get direct images of these planets," said Batchledor.

The TESS team will publicly release much of the observatory's data January 2019. The mission will survey nearly the entire sky looking for exoplanet candidates.

The $200 million satellite is run by NASA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It launched from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to Central Florida in 2005 to attend the University of Central Florida. He began working at WMFE as a college intern where he discovered his love for public radio.