Nav: Home

New NASA mission could find more than 1,000 planets

February 25, 2019

COLUMBUS, Ohio--A NASA telescope that will give humans the largest, deepest, clearest picture of the universe since the Hubble Space Telescope could find as many as 1,400 new planets outside Earth's solar system, new research suggests.

The new telescope paves the way for a more accurate, more focused search for extraterrestrial life, according to researchers.

The study, by a team of astronomers at The Ohio State University, provides the most detailed estimates to date of the potential reach of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope mission (nicknamed WFIRST.) It was designed by NASA and astronomers throughout the country to find new planets and research dark energy, the mysterious force that pervades otherwise empty space and that could hold the keys to understanding how the universe expands. Their work was published Feb. 25 in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

"We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are," said Matthew Penny, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio State Department of Astronomy. "To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything."

The planets WFIRST is likely to find will be further from their stars than most planets found to date, Penny said. The mission will build on the work of Kepler, a deep-space telescope that found more than 2,600 planets outside our solar system. The Kepler mission ended Oct. 30, 2018.

"Kepler began the search by looking for planets that orbit their stars closer than the Earth is to our Sun," Penny said. "WFIRST will complete it by finding planets with larger orbits."

To find new planets, WFIRST will use gravitational microlensing, a technique that relies on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light coming from stars that pass behind them from the telescope's viewpoint.

This microlensing effect, which is connected to Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, allows a telescope to find planets orbiting stars thousands of light-years away from Earth--much farther than other planet-detecting techniques. But because microlensing works only when the gravity of a planet or star bends the light from another star, the effect from any given planet or star is only visible for a few hours once every few million years. WFIRST will spend long stretches of time continuously monitoring 100 million stars at the center of the galaxy.

Penny's study predicted that about 100 of those not-yet-discovered planets could have the same or lower mass as Earth.

The new telescope will be able to map the Milky Way and other galaxies 100 times faster than the famous Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.

The WFIRST mission, with a budget of around $3.2 billion, will scan a small piece of the universe--about 2 square degrees--at a resolution higher than any similar mission in the past. That resolution, Penny said, will allow WFIRST to see more stars and planets than any previous organized search.

"Although it's a small fraction of the sky, it's huge compared to what other space telescopes can do," Penny said. "It's WFIRST's unique combination - both a wide field of view and a high resolution - that make it so powerful for microlensing planet searches. Previous space telescopes, including Hubble and James Webb, have had to choose one or the other."

WFIRST, Penny said, should give astronomers, astrophysicists and others who study space significantly more information about more planets outside of our solar system.

"WFIRST will allow us to find types of planets that we haven't seen before now," Penny said. "From WFIRST's microlensing survey, we will learn how frequently different types of planets are formed, and how unique our solar system is."

So far, scientists have discovered about almost 700 planetary systems--also known as solar systems--containing more than one planet. And they have discovered some 4,000 planets. But even though humans have searched galaxies near and far for signs of life, the search mostly has found planets that are closer to their stars than Earth is to our Sun.

The "infrared" piece of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope is also important, Penny said.

"Infrared light allows WFIRST to see through dust that lies in the plane of the Milky Way in between us and the galactic center, something optical telescopes on the ground cannot do," he said. "This gives WFIRST access to parts of the sky that are more densely packed with stars."

Ohio State has played an important role in WFIRST, from the project's inception to the design of research programs the telescope will execute.

The mission is still in the planning stages; NASA announced plans to move forward with WFIRST in February of 2016, and began its initial planning in May of 2018.
-end-
Contact: Matthew Penny, 614-292-6925; penny.24@osu.edu

Written by: Laura Arenschield, 614-292-9475; arenschield.2@osu.edu

Ohio State University

Related Solar System Articles:

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system
Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high.
What a dying star's ashes tell us about the birth of our solar system
A UA-led team of researchers discovered a dust grain forged in a stellar explosion before our solar system was born.
What scientists found after sifting through dust in the solar system
Two recent studies report discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system: a dust ring at Mercury's orbit, and a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with Venus, supplying the dust in Venus' orbit.
Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed
A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our solar system.
Discovery of the first body in the Solar System with an extrasolar origin
Asteroid 2015 BZ509 is the very first object in the Solar System shown to have an extrasolar origin.
First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system
A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our solar system.
A star disturbed the comets of the solar system in prehistory
About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids.
Scientists detect comets outside our solar system
Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets -- comets outside our solar system -- orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.
Does the organic material of comets predate our solar system?
The Rosetta space probe discovered a large amount of organic material in the nucleus of comet 'Chury.' In an article published by MNRAS on Aug.
Tracking a solar eruption through the solar system
Ten spacecraft, from ESA's Venus Express to NASA's Voyager-2, felt the effect of a solar eruption as it washed through the solar system while three other satellites watched, providing a unique perspective on this space weather event.
More Solar System News and Solar System Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: IRL Online
Original broadcast date: March 20, 2020. Our online lives are now entirely interwoven with our real lives. But the laws that govern real life don't apply online. This hour, TED speakers explore rules to navigate this vast virtual space.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#573 Penis. That's It. That's the title.
This episode is about penises. That was your content warning. Penises. Where they came from. Why they're useful. And the many, many wild things that animals do with them. Come for the world's oldest penis, stay for the creature that ejaculates 80 percent of its bodyweight. Host Bethany Brookshire talks with Emily Willingham about her new book, "Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Falling
There are so many ways to fall–in love, asleep, even flat on your face. This hour, Radiolab dives into stories of great falls.  We jump into a black hole, take a trip over Niagara Falls, upend some myths about falling cats, and plunge into our favorite songs about falling. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.