LeTourneau physics professor: New NASA space probe searching for Earth-sized planets

LeTourneau physics professor: New NASA space probe searching for Earth-sized planets
Dr. Stephen Ball, a LeTourneau University physics professor, discusses NASA's new space probe. (Source: KLTV Staff)

LONGVIEW, TX (KLTV) - NASA is looking for real estate, but not anything very local. They are about to launch a satellite that will search for planets outside our solar system.

East Texas News spoke with a LeTourneau physics professor who says the satellite's main goal is searching for planets about the size of the Earth.

Dr. Steven Ball is pretty excited about the SpaceX satellite launch scheduled for next week. It's called TESS or:

"Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite," Ball said.

When asked to elaborate on what that means, Ball replied, "That's a telescope that will be looking for Earth-like planets or any kind of planet that transits in front of another star," Ball explained.

He said TESS will be staring at a whole bunch of stars to measure:

"The light intensity coming from that star, which dims slightly when a planet goes in front of our field of view," Ball stated.

Ball said it's not so much like a solar eclipse or anything. That would take a really big planet. In fact, TESS can't even see a dot, just a slight blocking of the star's light.

"That's not very much dimming. We have to measure the light intensity very, very carefully and accurately. It's just like a photometer. It's designed to measure the amount of light coming from that star," Ball explained.

Could it have been done in the 1940s with a light meter?

"Not out in orbit. You need to get away from all the stray light," Bell said.

Ball said TESS is more sensitive than the Kepler Spacecraft, which in the last decade made a startling discovery.

"Typically, a star will have planets," Ball revealed.

Kepler found many of them by detecting a star wobbling in reaction to a large planet's gravitational pull.

"So, the Doppler shift method of finding exoplanets favored the very large Jupiter-size planets. This can find the very small planets that are Earth-sized," Ball clarified.

In response to a question about using the information from the satellite to find vacation spots for mankind in the future, Ball laughed and said, "Maybe we will find a vacation spot, but it may take quite a bit to get there."

So, for now, you may still want to book the beach.

NASA has already found about 2,000 exoplanets with the Kepler spacecraft, launched in 2009. About 10 are the correct distance from their respective suns to have liquid water and could be habitable, but no word yet about beaches on those worlds.

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