Neutron Star Experiment and an Exoplanet Searching Probe Selected for 2017 Launch

First Posted: Apr 07, 2013 11:50 PM EDT

NASA announced the selection of two science missions to be launched in 2017: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) project at MIT will develop and launch a space-based planet hunter, while NICER will be an array of X-ray telescopes mounted on the ISS to analyze the still mysterious neutron stars. The space agency announced the missions - to be funded by a $200 million grant to the MIT-led team, and up to $55 million for NICER - following a three-year competition.

The TESS sattellite will use an array of wide-field cameras to perform an all-sky survey to discover transiting exoplanets, ranging from Earth-sized planets to gas giants, in orbit around the brightest stars in the sun's neighborhood. A transiting exoplanet, meaning outside our own solar system, is one that periodically eclipses its central star and can then be detected -- the most successful method for finding exoplanets to date.

"TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission," said George Ricker, principal investigator of the project and scientist at MIT. "It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth."

TESS relies upon a number of innovations developed by the MIT team over the past seven years. "For TESS, we were able to devise a special new 'Goldilocks' orbit for the spacecraft - one which is not too close, and not too far, from both the Earth and the moon," Ricker says.

As a result, every two weeks TESS approaches close enough to the Earth for high data-downlink rates, while remaining above the planet's harmful radiation belts. This special orbit will remain stable for decades, keeping TESS's sensitive cameras in a very stable temperature range.

With TESS, it will be possible to study the masses, sizes, densities, orbits and atmospheres of a large cohort of small planets, including a sample of rocky worlds in the habitable zones of their host stars. TESS will thus provide prime targets for further characterization by large ground-based and space-based telescopes of the future, which will be capable of observing exoplanets directly with some (astro-chemical) detail for the first time.

Neutron star experiment

The second mission, a multi-purpose project also known as NICER/SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), will be mounted as another modular experiment on the International Space Station to observe and analyze neutron stars. It will have an array of 56 small X-ray telescopes in a compact bundle, their associated silicon detectors, and a number of other advanced technologies to do this.

These super-dense but with a few hundred kilometer in diameter pretty small celestial objects are like the little brother of black holes. They have a tendency of eating their neighbors should they venture too close, and little is known about them.

"A neutron star is right at the threshold of matter as it can exist - if it were compressed any further, it would collapse completely on itself and become a black hole," said Zaven Arzoumanian, a NASA Goddard scientist the the deputy principal investigator on the mission. "We have no way of creating or studying this matter in any laboratory."

The mission will not only will it allow unprecedented access to Neutron stars, but the explorer will also employ what NASA says is a groundbreaking navigation technology capable of revolutionizing the ability to travel to the "far reaches of the solar system and beyond."

Specifically, scientists hope to prove the viability of using pulsars as a sort of lighthouse in order to guide the explorer through space - a phenomenon made possible through the precision with which pulsars give off light.

See Now: NASA's Juno Spacecraft's Rendezvous With Jupiter's Mammoth Cyclone

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