NASA ramps up search for habitable planets near Earth

We've written several times about recent habitable planet findings, such as the discovery of three such planets on April 18 via the Kepler space telescope. Such planets exist within the habitable zone, but aren't necessarily capable of supporting life, and we won't know for sure without studying each one individually. The distance at which many of these exo-planets are located from our planet makes this a problem, with current technology being able to do little more than recognize their existence and potential habitability. That is where NASA's upcoming TESS telescope will come in.

Called the Transisting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS for short, this space-based telescope will be launched by NASA in 2017. Once in space, TESS will pick through the relatively nearby areas around the sun in search of other exo-planets that are potentially habitable, with the bonus being their distance, allowing researchers to study in more details any exo-planets found.

According to Universe Today, NASA TESS's Principle Investigator George Ricker said: "TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth."

Following the launch of TESS will be another telescope, the JWST (James Webb Space Telescope), slated for orbit in 2018. Unlike TESS, JWST will search for planets via infrared light, providing an extra layer of search for bodies that lie beyond the reach of visible light. Once both satellites are launched, their combined information could help determine whether any planets discovered are capable of sustaining life.

The catch is that the exo-planets – assuming any are found – will have to be located within a relatively small distance: 50 or so light years away from Earth. Anything found behind a certain threshold will be difficult for researchers to analyze sufficiently enough to determine whether aspects of it, such as the atmosphere, are sufficient for sustaining life.