The Next Quest for New Worlds

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 04.25.18
  • NOVA

There are worlds beyond our own. A new explorer just left Earth to hunt for them.

Running Time: 02:15


The Next Quest for New Worlds

Published April 25, 2018

Onscreen: A new explorer just left Earth to hunt for alien worlds.

Grace Baird: People just have an interest in seeing that, knowing that there's other life out there. What if one day we need to go someplace else?

George Ricker: It's actually far more interesting to look for planets that are not like Earth, to become more aware of things that you never thought of.

Onscreen: The Kepler spacecraft has shown the galaxy is brimming with exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system). It's discovered over 2000 of them. But most are too far to study closely. So NASA and SpaceX just launched a satellite called "TESS" to continue the hunt.

Ricker: It's about the size of a refrigerator.

Onscreen: TESS will look for planets in orbit around 200,000 stars, including stars like our Sun and red dwarfs that are smaller, cooler, brighter, and longer lived.

Baird: Imagine you're shining a light at something and then you pass your finger in front of it. When a planet passes in front of a star, there is a very small change in the light that's detected from that star. And that is what Tess is looking for.

Onscreen: This is called a transit. Like Kepler, it's how TESS will discover new exoplanets. Its cameras are way more sensitive than anything we've launched into space before.

Unlike Kepler, TESS will focus on nearby stars (within a couple hundred light years). The exoplanets it finds could be targets for future telescopes, which will study their atmospheres, looking for signs of life.

Ricker: If there's something out there that's very rare, there's a good chance that we're gonna find it.

Onscreen: But for now, we wait.

Ricker: There's a calmness that I feel because everything that can be done has been done. And we'll just have to see.

Onscreen: Soon the data downlinks will begin, and a stream of cosmic pixels will arrive on Earth—a shower of twinkling lights to tell us about our neighborhood.

For more on the hunt for life beyond Earth… NOVA Wonders: Are We Alone?



Digital Producer
Ari Daniel
Production Assistance
Yasmeen Fakhro & Annie Kim
Editorial Review
Julia Cort
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018




(main image: exoplanet solar system)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018

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