July 18, 2019 | 74° F

Rutgers professor comments on recent NASA satellite launch, the discovery of exoplanets

Photo by NASA |

The recent launch of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite takes the next step in exploring nearby stars and assessing whether exoplanets might have conditions suitable to sustain human life. 

NASA launched its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) last Wednesday as part of a mission aimed at discovering thousands of exoplanets orbiting bright stars. 

Exoplanets are worlds orbiting other stars, which come in a variety of sizes from gas giants to smaller, rocky planets, according to EarthSky. Saurabh Jha, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, offered insight into the project and his role in astronomy over the years.

“The satellite will consist of four cameras, each with 10-centimeter telescopes," Jha said. "The cameras are huge and very stable and sensitive.”

The advanced technology allows for a wider view of the sky, as well. Every two years, TESS will use multiple images from different parts of its orbit to compile a comprehensive look at the sky, he said. The project looks to observe outer space and nearby, brighter stars that are a few hundred light years away and are near enough that TESS will be the first mission that studies them from up close.         

Jha said that TESS is not the first project to search for exoplanets.

In March 2009, NASA launched Kepler. This satellite was dedicated to finding planets by the transit method, which measures and observes when a distant star dims due to one of its orbiting planets passing between it and Earth, Jha said. 

“This figures out the orbit and size of a planet,” he said.  

Kepler was a “first step” in the study of exoplanets. The mission compiled a census of how many other planets were out there and what sizes the planets were, he said. 

There was one problem with Kepler, Jha said. It was looking at faint stars that were far away. The professor explained that in order to conduct more research, the study needs to be focused on closer stars.  

That is where TESS comes into play. Kepler set the number for how many planets future missions should look for, but TESS will soon collect more detailed data about these exoplanets, he said.  

Considering that technology advances at a rapid pace, Jha said that TESS is also just another step in the process of exoplanet discovery.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently in testing, is scheduled to launch in 2020. He said this telescope will take atmospheric measurements of exoplanets being studied by TESS.    

Atmospheric measurements record the types of elements that are present in the atmosphere of these planets. If there are high levels of certain elements that are also found here on Earth, then there is room to speculate about extraterrestrial life, Jha said.       

He first became fascinated with astronomy when he was a child and enjoyed looking at the night sky. He began studying the universe early on after a trip to the Grand Canyon National Park piqued his interest. 

“Beauty is enhanced when you know what you’re looking at,” Jha said.

Jha said he takes pleasure in his own work, but over the years he has become even more proud of watching his own students’ discoveries since becoming a professor at Rutgers.  

Elizabeth Kilpatrick

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