Almost 4,000 planets have been discovered outside of our solar system — some of which might be habitable. A series of upcoming missions could add tens of thousands more planets to that list, starting “a whole new era of exoplanet opportunities,” according to MIT astronomer Sara Seagar, who spoke on the topic at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The mission: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is set to launch into orbit around Earth in March. Its wide-angle cameras will, over the course of two years, photograph almost 85% of the sky in order to detect the brief dips of light caused by a planet passing in front of a star. The database it creates will guide missions for decades to come.

NASA's Kepler missions found most of the planets discovered so far. Kepler was designed to figure out how many planets were in one small part of the sky so researchers could estimate how many there may be in total. It looked at 0.25% of the sky, but peered as far at 3000 light years away.

What's new: TESS will look at almost all of the sky, but it will focus on stars that neighbor our solar system and could be studied with future telescopes.

Coincidentally, most of the stars close to us are small, cold so-called M dwarf stars. It’s easier to look for habitable planets around M dwarfs because any planets capable of supporting life will need to be closer to the stars. That means that when the planet passes in front of the star, it’ll block out a larger, more detectable region of light. Additionally, those planets will take less time to orbit their stars, meaning we’ll have more opportunities to catch them passing by.

What’s next: More than 140 non-NASA proposals to use TESS's capabilities were also submitted, and roughly 1 in 4 will be selected in a few months. They’ll look at planets in the solar system, planets outside of it, and even galaxies.

Additionally, researchers will select 50 targets out of the massive catalogue of stars and planets TESS will create. These planets will likely be close in size to Earth, and considered the best candidates for possibly supporting life. The James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch about a year after TESS starts gathering data, will take a closer look at those planets to learn more about their composition and atmosphere.

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 4 p.m. ET: 12,813,864 — Total deaths: 566,790 — Total recoveries — 7,046,535Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 4 p.m. ET: 3,286,025 — Total deaths: 135,089 — Total recoveries: 995,576 — Total tested: 39,553,395Map.
  3. States: Florida smashes single-day record for new coronavirus cases with over 15,000 — Miami-Dade mayor says "it won't be long" until county's hospitals reach capacity.
  4. Public health: Ex-FDA chief projects "apex" of South's coronavirus curve in 2-3 weeks — Coronavirus testing czar: Lockdowns in hotspots "should be on the table"
  5. Education: Betsy DeVos says schools that don't reopen shouldn't get federal funds — Pelosi accuses Trump of "messing with the health of our children."

11 GOP congressional nominees support QAnon conspiracy

Lauren Boebert posing in her restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, on April 24. Photo: Emily Kask/AFP

At least 11 Republican congressional nominees have publicly supported or defended the QAnon conspiracy theory movement or some of its tenets — and more aligned with the movement may still find a way onto ballots this year.

Why it matters: Their progress shows how a fringe online forum built on unsubstantiated claims and flagged as a threat by the FBI is seeking a foothold in the U.S. political mainstream.

Lindsey Graham says he will ask Mueller to testify before Senate

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted Sunday that he will grant Democrats' request to call former special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before his committee.

The big picture: The announcement comes on the heels of Mueller publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post that defended the Russia investigation and conviction of Roger Stone, whose sentence was commuted by President Trump on Friday.