NASA 1000 planets, outside of our solar system (Details)

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NASA 1000 planets, outside of our solar system (Details).

Nasa’s latest in-development telescope could find up to 1,400 planets outside of our solar system, according to the development team at Ohio State University.

Dubbed the ‘Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope’ mission (WFIRST), the telescope should produce the clearest picture of the universe since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched and allow for a more focused search for extra-terrestrial life.

It will also allow for further study of the universe following the demise of the Kepler telescope in October 2018, after that telescope ran out of fuel.

In addition to finding new planets, the device will be used to research dark energy, the mysterious force that pervades otherwise empty space and that could hold the key to understanding how the universe expands. WFIRST is currently on track for a mid-2020s launch.

“We want to know what kind of planetary systems there are,” said Matthew Penny, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio State Department of Astronomy. “To do that, you need to not just look where the obvious, easy things are. You need to look at everything.”

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The planets WFIRST is likely to find will be further from their stars than most planets found to date, Penny said.

“Kepler began the search by looking for planets that orbit their stars closer than the Earth is to our Sun,” Penny said. “WFIRST will complete it by finding planets with larger orbits.”

To find new planets, WFIRST will use gravitational microlensing, a technique that relies on the gravity of stars and planets to bend and magnify the light coming from stars that pass behind them from the telescope’s viewpoint.

This microlensing effect – which is connected to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – allows a telescope to find planets orbiting stars thousands of light-years away from Earth, much farther than other planet-detecting techniques.

However, because microlensing works only when the gravity of a planet or star bends the light from another star, the effect from any given planet or star is only visible for a few hours once every few million years. WFIRST will spend long stretches of time continuously monitoring 100 million stars at the centre of the galaxy.

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Penny’s study predicted that about 100 of those not-yet-discovered planets could have the same or lower mass as Earth.

The new telescope will be able to map the Milky Way and other galaxies 100 times faster than the famous Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, the researchers said.

The WFIRST mission, with a budget of around $3.2bn, will scan a small piece of the universe—about 2 square degrees—at a resolution higher than any similar mission in the past. That resolution, Penny said, will allow WFIRST to see more stars and planets than any previous organized search.

“Although it’s a small fraction of the sky, it’s huge compared to what other space telescopes can do,” Penny said. “It’s WFIRST’s unique combination – both a wide field of view and a high resolution – that make it so powerful for microlensing planet searches. Previous space telescopes, including Hubble and James Webb, have had to choose one or the other.”

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WFIRST, Penny said, should give astronomers, astrophysicists and others who study space significantly more information about more planets outside of our solar system.

“WFIRST will allow us to find types of planets that we haven’t seen before now,” Penny said. “From WFIRST’s microlensing survey, we will learn how frequently different types of planets are formed, and how unique our solar system is.”

So far, scientists have discovered about almost 700 planetary systems—also known as solar systems—containing more than one planet and they have discovered some 4,000 planets.

But even though humans have searched galaxies near and far for signs of life, the search mostly has found planets that are closer to their stars than Earth is to our Sun.

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