The newest space telescope in the sky — NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS — has been searching for exoplanets for less than a year, but already it has quite a collection to its name.
The TESS mission is to find relatively nearby planets orbiting bright and stable suns, and so expectations were high from the onset about the discovery of important new planets and solar systems. At a meeting this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted to TESS results, principal investigator George Ricker pronounced the early verdict.
The space telescope, he said, “has far exceeded our most optimistic hopes.” The count is up to 21 new planets and 850 additional candidate worlds waiting to be confirmed.
Equally or perhaps more important is that the planets and solar systems being discovered promise important results. They have not yet included any Earth-sized rocky planet in a sun’s habitable zone — what is generally considered the most likely, though hardly the only, kind of planet to harbor life — but they did include planets that offer a great deal when it comes to atmospheres and how they can be investigated.
One of the newest three-planet system is called TOI-270, and it’s about 75 light years from Earth. The star at the center of the system is a red dwarf, a bit less than half the size of the sun.
Despite its small size, it’s brighter than most of the nearby stars we know host planets. And it’s stable, making its solar system especially valuable.