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Are We Alone in the Universe?

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite
Image courtesy NASA

Are we alone in the universe? A pretty huge age old question that science has been piecing together bit by bit over the years. There are smart men and women working towards this answer every single day using a myriad of different approaches. One of these keeps popping up in the news for identifying new worlds. Does this mean we're getting closer to answering that age old question, is there any life out there? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

Science helps us answer big questions and they don't get bigger than this one. Is there any life out there? One of the most recent contributions to answering this question involves NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellites, also known as TESS. Launched on April 18, 2018, TESS is designed to detect the dimming of a star caused by objects orbiting that star. When something passes between the star and TESS it blocks just a little bit of light coming from the star, and that very slight dimming helps scientists determine what’s orbiting that star.

TESS then sends its observations to Earth, where astronomers look for promising signals and use other telescopes to confirm they've found real planets. In the time TESS has been operational it has brought us nearly 1,000 candidate planets outside our solar system - but can any of them support life?

To be a suitable place for us to look for life, we ask how similar an exoplanet is to what we have here. We only have this one planet to count for places with life, so a lot of our perspective is based on what is familiar to us and our life-hosting-planet. Is it terrestrial? Can it hold an atmosphere? Is it just the right distance for its star? Many variables to consider before looking for signs of alien inhabitants.

Recently TESS made headlines for guiding astronomers to a potentially habitable planet located 31 light years away. Escaping the solar system as fast as we can manage today, like Voyager 1, it’d take over 500,000 years to get to this newly announced exoplanet. No worries, closer options exist like the rocky world at Proxima Centauri, located a mere 4.2 Light years away. But using Voyager style technology, it's still 74,000 years away. So studying these planets isn't likely to involve flying out to ring the doorbell and ask if anyone's home. However, missions like TESS help identify the most promising candidates so we know where to aim future instruments that will be designed to help us tease out the answers from much farther away.

TESS is now scheduled to operate through 2022, so stay tuned as scientists continue the quest for more Earth-like planets and to answer that age old question about finding other life in the universe. Until then we've always got X-Files reruns folks. After all, the truth is out there, and programs like TESS are helping fine tune our knowledge of the world around us to better answer these big questions.