NASA's next exoplanet hunting mission

Artist's rendition of TESS in space (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

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.