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The Exoplanet Search: What’s Next?

When data from the Kepler Space Telescope was used to confirm the existence of 715 new exoplanets two weeks ago (bringing us to a total of 961), many observers were surprised—because we’d already lowered our expectations after hearing, last year, that the telescope was no longer fully functional. You might think this is the last piece of good exoplanet-discovery news you’re going to get for a while, but it isn’t—the exoplanet search is just beginning, and the next five years are going to be tremendously exciting.

First comes the possible rescue of the Kepler telescope by way of the K2 project, which will attempt to compensate for the damaged Kepler telescope’s deficiencies by using sunbeams to align the two remaining reaction wheels. If this strategy works, Kepler will actually survey a much larger patch of the sky along Earth’s elliptical orbit—potentially uncovering far more exoplanets than it ever had in the past.

But that’s just the beginning. Meet the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the next major piece of NASA exoplanet-hunting technology:

TESS doesn’t launch until 2017, but it’s likely that the Kepler mission will continue to produce plenty of new exoplanet data to keep us occupied between now and then. If you’d like to keep up with the hunt, bookmark Wikipedia’s comprehensive list of exoplanets discovered by Kepler; with more than 3,600 exoplanet candidates already identified for possible confirmation, there’s a good chance the list will grow considerably over the next few years.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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