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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.

Go deeper

6 mins ago - World

Special report: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.

Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

McConnell: Trump "provoked" Capitol mob

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was "provoked by the president and other powerful people."

Why it matters: Trump was impeached by the House last week for "incitement of insurrection." McConnell has not said how he will vote in Trump's coming Senate impeachment trial, but sources told Axios' Mike Allen that the chances of him voting to convict are higher than 50%.

49 mins ago - Politics & Policy

GOP leaders skip Trump sendoff in favor of church with Biden

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in July. Photo by Erin Scott-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional leaders, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will skip President Trump's departure ceremony in Maryland tomorrow morning in favor of attending mass with incoming President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration, congressional sources familiar with their plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: Their decision is a clear sign of unity before Biden takes the oath of office.

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