NASA’s Alien-Hunting Probe Gets New 'Habitable Planets Catalog'

NASA has provided its new planet-hunting satellite a list of high-priority targets. The agency's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is now set to explore Earth-like worlds listed on the new "habitable planets catalog."

"This catalog is important for TESS, because anyone working with the data wants to know around which stars we can find the closest Earth analogs," TESS science team member Lisa Kaltenegger, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University in New York and director of the school's Carl Sagan Institute, said in a statement.

The catalog focuses on planets that showed Earth-like features in earlier observations, reported Monday.

"Life could exist on all sorts of worlds, but the kind we know can support life is our own, so it makes sense to first look for Earth-like planets," Kaltenegger said. 

NASA launched TESS aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in April 2018. The spacecraft will seek exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.

TESS is designed to detect tiny brightness dips that occur when planets cross their host stars facing the satellite. The mission is expected to observe up to 400,000 stars during its first two years in space. 

Kaltenegger and her colleagues listed 1,822 stars with planets potentially receiving about the same amount of radiation like Earth. The research team also found 408 stars being orbited by planets that is about our planet’s size. 

"We don't know how many planets TESS will find around the hundreds of stars in our catalog or whether they will be habitable, but the odds are in our favor," Kaltenegger said. "Some studies indicate that there are many rocky planets in the habitable zone of cool stars, like the ones in our catalog. We're excited to see what worlds we'll find."

NASA’s habitable planets catalog also include 137 stars that will also be observed by the agency’s James Webb Space Telescope after it launches in 2021. James Webb is tasked to determine the atmospheres of some nearby exoplanets and to find potential life-supporting gases, such as oxygen and methane.

Kaltenegger’s team published their initial report on the TESS mission in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.