Well, that was fast.
Just a few months into its mission to search the night sky for alien worlds, NASA's TESS, or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is already making new discoveries. A preprint paper uploaded earlier this week presented initial findings of a new exoplanet roughly twice the size of Earth and orbiting the star Pi Mensae. Called "Pi Mensae c" and located some 60 light-years from Earth, the exoplanet takes only 6.27 days to complete an orbit around its parent star.
"This is one of the first objects we looked at," says Chelsea Huang, a TESS scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told New Scientist. "We were immediately saying 'Hey this is too good to be true!'"
The space telescope, a successor to the aging and soon-to-be-decommissioned Kepler space telescope, uses its four optical cameras to scan stars and record periodic dips in brightness, a tell-tale sign that a planet is "transiting" in front of its host star. As shown in the Tweet below, TESS's "first light" survey of the southern sky includes a vast swath of potential targets.
.@NASA_TESS shares its "first light" image. Features in this swath of the southern sky include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a globular cluster called NGC 104: Read More @NASA: https://t.co/C3wVr5WNgI pic.twitter.com/na4ciL9DeZ— NASA_TESS (@NASA_TESS) September 17, 2018
Less than 24 hours after the announcement of their first discovery, the TESS team followed up on Twitter with the exciting news that they had already discovered a second exoplanet candidate 49 light-years from Earth.
A second @NASA_TESS candidate planet has been discovered! Slightly bigger than Earth, this planet orbits LHS 3844, a M dwarf star 49 light-years away, every 11 hours. This find is being reviewed by other scientists, and we're looking forward to studying this cool "hot Earth."— NASA_TESS (@NASA_TESS) September 20, 2018
In fact, should everything go according to plan, announcements like these will soon become the norm. Over the course of its two-year prime mission, NASA expects TESS to uncover as many as 20,000 exoplanets during its survey of roughly 85 percent of the night sky. Once located, the more intriguing exoplanets will be studied by future telescopes like the James Webb –– launching in 2020 –– to better gauge if these alien worlds host conditions suitable for life.
"In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study," said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in a press release. "This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS's cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth."
Have we found Vulcan?
While TESS is certainly receiving a lot of attention, it's not the only eye trained on finding new worlds. A team of researchers using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope, a 50-inch telescope atop Mount Lemmon in southern Arizona, have announced the discovery of a rocky exoplanet orbiting a triple-star system 16 light-years from Earth. As luck would have it, the exoplanet's parent star, called 40 Eridani A, is precisely the location where "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned Spock's home planet of Vulcan residing.
Together with three astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Roddenberry argued in brilliant geek-speak why previous "Star Trek" authors were incorrect in assuming that the system's other star, Epsilon Eridani, would host Vulcan's orbit.
"The HK observations suggest that 40 Eridani is 4 billion years old, about the same age as the Sun. In contrast, Epsilon Eridani is barely 1 billion years old," Roddenberry and Co. wrote in a letter to Sky & Telescope in 1991. "Based on the history of life on Earth, life on any planet around Epsilon Eridani would not have had time to evolve beyond the level of bacteria. On the other hand, an intelligent civilization could have evolved over the aeons on a planet circling 40 Eridani. So the latter is the more likely Vulcan sun."
While the newly discovered exoplanet for now is classified as "HD 26965b," the team behind the discovery is already working to petition having it officially named Vulcan. As for the likelihood it might host life? Jian Ge, a professor of astronomy at the University of Florida and co-author of a new paper about the discovery, told NBC News MACH that while the planet is tidally-locked, with one constantly baking in the scorching light of its star, its other, cooler half might offer some hope.
"On the other hand, life can also survive underground," she said. "Like what 'Star Trek' imagines, Vulcans stay in the caves."