NASA's New Exoplanet-Hunting Satellite Has Made Its First Big Discovery


Five months after launching into space, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, has already made history. On August 7, the satellite snapped its first light image, and scientists have used it to identify an extrasolar planet orbiting a star about 60 light years from our own, Gizmodo reports.

TESS is designed to photograph stars from space using its four 10-centimeter optical telescopes. After receiving its data, researchers look for blips in the brightness of each star potentially indicating the presence of an orbiting exoplanet. TESS's first light image, which was released to the public on September 17, contains one of these tell-tale signs.

The possible exoplanet was spotted around Pi Mensae, a bright yellow dwarf star that's visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. The planet, dubbed Pi Mensae c, is what's known as a "super-Earth." It has 4.82 times the mass of our planet with about 2.14 times the radius. It takes just 6.27 days for Pi Mensae c to complete its orbit, and because it's so close to its star, it's almost certainly too hot to support life. The research team has submitted its findings to a peer-reviewed journal, but for now the paper's available on the preprint platform arXiv [PDF].

Even if Pi Mensae c doesn't have potential as a future destination for humans, that doesn't mean TESS won't eventually discover a planet that does. The satellite will collect data for two years, and it's expected to document 500,000 stars and uncover 1000 exoplanets in that time.

[h/t Gizmodo]