With so many exoplanets already detected, with the pace of discovery continuing to be so fast, and with efforts to find more distant worlds so constant and global, it’s easy to become somewhat blase´ about new discoveries. After so many “firsts,” and so many different kinds of planets found in very different ways, it certainly seems that some of the thrill may be gone.
Surely the detection of a clearly “Earth-like planet” would cause new excitement — one that is not only orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star but also has signs of a potentially nurturing atmosphere in a generally supportive cosmic neighborhood.
But while many an exoplanet has been described as somewhat “Earth-like” and potentially habitable, further observation has consistently reduced the possibility of the planets actually hosting some form of biology. The technology and knowledge base needed to find distant life is surely advancing, but it may well still have a long way to go.
In just the last few days, however, a slew of discoveries have been reported that highlight the allure and science of our new Exoplanet Era. They may not be blockbusters by themselves, but they are together part of an immense scientific exploration under way, one that is re-shaping our understanding of the cosmos and preparing us for bigger discoveries and insights to come.
What I have in mind are these discoveries:
- The first Earth-sized planet detected by NASA’s year-old orbiting telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.) TESS is designed to find planets orbiting massive stars in our near neighborhood, and it has already made 10 confirmed discoveries. But finding a small exoplanet — 85 percent the size of Earth — is a promising result for a mission designed to not only locate as many as 20,000 new exoplanets, but to find 500 to 1,000 the rough size of Earth or SuperEarth.