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NASA, MIT to launch 2017 mission to search for life on distant planets

NASA, working in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has announced plans for a 2017 mission to search for life on distant exoplanets.

The mission, which is widely viewed as a successor to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, will provide astronomers with a another planet-hunting eye in low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft, dubbed the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is slated for launch in 2017, according to the space agency, and it will rely on an array of telescopes to survey the sky.

According to NASA, the mission — which grew out of an earlier experimental mission — will operate in a similar capacity to Kepler. Scientists say it will observe transiting exoplanets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, and will collect data on the composition of an exoplanet’s surface and atmosphere. However, the main objective of the TESS mission, unlike Kepler, is to identify terrestrial planets capable of hosting life. In addition, the TESS  spacecraft will have the ability to scan much larger portions of the sky (Kepler currently only focuses on the constellations Cygnus and Lyra).

The mission will be led by principal investigator George Ricker, a senior research scientist at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. In a statement released Friday, NASA noted that Ricker’s MIT team has developed a number of innovations over the course of the last seven years, some of which will be included when TESS launches in 2017.

The mission follows in the wake of the four-year mark of the wildly successful Kepler mission. The spacecraft, which continues to collect data, has captured the imagination of the astronomy community. The spacecraft has collected data on thousands of planets, hundreds of which have been identified and catalogued. The mission has allowed astronomers to identify everything from waterworld-type planets far larger than jupiter to planets made entirely of diamond. Scientists say the mission has quickly reaffirmed assumptions that the universe is comprised of planets of varying sizes with a diverse compositions.

While Friday’s announcement was greeted with support, a number of critics have questioned the decision by the space agency to pursue the mission. Critics have pointed to the price tag for the program, which could run as high as $200 million. Still, NASA defended its decision Friday, pointing to the successes achieved by the Kepler Space Telescope, which includes the discovery of the first rocky planet outside of our solar system and the discovery of the exoplanet within the habitable zone planet around a sun-like star.