Following a three-year competition, NASA has selected the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) project at MIT for a planned launch in 2017. The space agency announced the mission — to be funded by a $200 million grant to the MIT-led team — this afternoon. TESS team partners include the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) and MIT Lincoln Laboratory; NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center; Orbital Sciences Corporation; NASA’s Ames Research Center; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; The Aerospace Corporation; and the Space Telescope Science Institute. The project, led by principal investigator George Ricker, a senior research scientist at MKI, will use an array of wide-field cameras to perform an all-sky survey to discover transiting exoplanets, ranging from Earth-sized planets to gas giants, in orbit around the brightest stars in the sun’s neighborhood. Exoplanets are planets orbiting a star other than the sun; a transiting exoplanet is one that periodically eclipses its host star. “TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission,” Ricker says. “It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth.”
On the other hand, the actual example of discovering new space life is the work of “Curiosity” space rover on Mars right now. Curiosity is going to have a “spring break” this month, as the sun blocks communication between Earth and Mars:
It’s the Martian version of spring break: Curiosity and Opportunity, along with their spacecraft friends circling overhead, will take it easy this month because of the sun’s interference. For much of April, the sun blocks the line of sight between Earth and Mars. This celestial alignment – called a Mars solar conjunction – makes it difficult for engineers to send instructions or hear from the flotilla in orbit and on the surface. Such communication blackouts occur every two years when the red planet disappears behind the sun. No new commands are sent since flares and charged particles spewing from the sun can scramble transmission signals and put spacecraft in danger. Mission teams prepared by uploading weeks of scaled-back activities beforehand. “They’re on their own,” said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rovers are banned from driving. Instead, they take a staycation and study their surroundings. The orbiting Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continue to listen for the rovers and make their own observations, but for the most part will transmit data once Mars is in view again. Opportunity, Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express have survived previous bouts of restricted communications. It’s the first for Curiosity, which landed last year near the Martian equator to hunt for the chemical building blocks of life.
Equally important, the efforts to discover new thriving life forms never stops on our planet. Look at deep sea vents:
The discovery of hydrothermal deep sea vents in the late 1970s opened up multiple new areas of research and learning for geologists, chemists and biologists. That superheated geysers existed deep under the ocean had been hypothesized earlier, so confirmation was undoubtedly exciting but not unexpected. The surprise was they were surrounded by thriving communities of life in one of the most extreme and inhospitable locations on Earth. Deep sea vents were first discovered near the Galapagos Islands, famous for their finches that helped Charles Darwin recognize natural selection as a key part of evolution. Many more vents have since been found around the world; most occur along the Mid-Ocean Ridge system, a 40,000 mile string of geologic activity where the earth’s tectonic plates intersect. Because of the enormous stresses on the earth’s crust in these areas, tiny cracks and fissures abound. Sea water under extreme pressure percolates through the cracks into the earth’s crust, dissolving minerals from the rock along the way. The water heats up as it travels deeper and closer to underlying molten rock, allowing it to carry increasing amounts of dissolved minerals. Higher temperatures also increase the water’s buoyancy, ultimately forcing it back up to the ocean floor through larger passages in the crust.
Finally, it is becoming important that the effort to discover new forms of life never stops on our Earth and Space. It is for sure that scientists have many new things to know about space life. Exoplanets are there…