NASA’s Kepler observatory has, to date, detected more than 2,700 potential planets that could harbour life since it launched in March 2009, revolutionizing scientists’ understanding of worlds beyond our solar system. Now, new advances are set to extend our search for alien planets even further.
A number of other spacecrafts will join in the search for exoplanets and the first one is scheduled for October this year – The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission. Gaia is designed to create an extremely accurate 3D map of about 1 billion Milky Way stars (still only 1 percent of our galaxy’s total!), which could reveal thousands of new planetary systems.
The next planned exoplanet mission is in 2017 when ESA’s Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite, or CHEOPS, will look at nearby stars known to host planets, watching for these worlds to cross their stars’ faces. This is known as the transit method.
NASA also plans to launch a planet hunting mission in the same year with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. TESS will use the transit method to search for worlds orbiting nearby stars, with a focus on Earth-size planets that may be capable of supporting life.
It is hoped that a number of exoplanets will be identified and flagged for further investigation. Then, hopefully in 2018, NASA’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope will be used to further examine the most promising of these newfound worlds, scanning their atmospheres for water vapour and gases that may have been produced by living organisms, such as oxygen, nitrous oxide and methane.
There has been a huge emphasis on the search for habitable planets and this is set to continue for the next decade. It may not be long at all until a truly remarkable discovery will be made.