The incredible NASA discovery was made possible by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). NASA’s spacecraft hunts for planets passing in front of stars by recording brief dips in their brightness. So far, TESS has found this way 21 new planets outside of our solar system within the first year alone. TESS launched into orbit in April 2018 and has surveyed stars in the southern skies.
Now, NASA has announced the spacecraft has exceeded all expectations and is searching for more alien worlds in the northern skies.
George Ricker, TESS’s principal investigator, said: “The pace and productivity of TESS in its first year of operations has far exceeded our most optimistic hopes for the mission.
“In addition to finding a diverse set of exoplanets, TESS has discovered a treasure trove of astrophysical phenomena, including thousands of variable stellar objects.”
TESS embarked on its planet-hunting expedition on April 18, 2018.
Since July last year, the spacecraft has collected data on black holes, supernovas and other phenomena in the southern skies.
According to NASA, TESS has identified more than 850 exoplanet candidates waiting for ground-based confirmations.
In order to find these alien planets, the spacecraft watches a 24-by-96-degree fragment of the sky for 27 days at a time.
The spacecraft concentrates on stars closer than 300 light-years from our solar system, patiently waiting for transiting planets.
As soon as a star briefly dims, NASA’s astronomers know they are looking at an object passing in front of the star.
If the space agency is lucky, it could be a planet capable of hosting and sustaining extraterrestrial life.
NASA said: “The planets TESS has dissevered so far range from a world 80 percent the size of Earth to ones comparable to or exceeding the sizes of Jupiter and Saturn.
“Like Kepler, TESS is ending many planets smaller in size than Neptune but larger than Earth.
“While NASA is striving to put astronauts on some of our nearest neighbours – the Moon and Mars – in order to understand more about the planets in our own solar system, follow up observations with powerful telescopes of the planets TESS discovered will enable us to better understand how Earth and the solar system formed.
“With TESS’ data, scientists using current and future observatories, like the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to study other aspects of exoplanets, like the presence and composition of any atmosphere, which would impact the possibility of developing life.”
On top of discovering new planets, the spacecraft has also contributed to finding new comets, exocomets and supernovas.
In the first months of its operation, for instance, TESS spotted six incredible supernova eruptions in distant galaxies.