NASA's groundbreaking planet-hunting Kepler observatory may be showing its age, but a handful of other spacecraft are poised to join the search for exoplanets and carry it into the future. The Kepler spacecraft has detected more than 2,700 potential alien planets since its March 2009 launch, revolutionizing scientists' understanding of worlds beyond our solar system. But the second of the telescope's four reaction wheels — devices that maintain the observatory's position in space — may be about to fail, putting the prolific mission's future in doubt. While no instrument is likely to replace Kepler or its capabilities anytime soon, reinforcements are on their way to the launchpad.
The first is scheduled to blast off this October, in fact — the European Space Agency's Gaia mission. Gaia is designed to create an extremely accurate 3D map of about 1 billion Milky Way stars — 1 percent of our galaxy's total. This work could detect tens of thousands of new planetary systems, scientists say. Europe aims to loft another exoplanet mission in 2017. ESA's Characterizing Exoplanets Satellite, or CHEOPS, will stare at nearby stars known to host planets, watching for these worlds to cross their stars' faces. NASA plans to launch a planet-hunter of its own in 2017, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. TESS will use the transit method to search for worlds orbiting nearby stars, with a focus on Earth-size planets that may be capable of supporting life.
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