Over the past few months, the search for habitable, Earth-like worlds orbiting other stars has begun to seem a lot less like finding a needle in a haystack. In January, Harvard-Smithsonian scientists estimated that about one in every six stars in the galaxy has an Earth-sized planet. A month later, colleagues reported that potentially-habitable worlds might be relatively close, astronomically speaking -- just 13 light-years away.
Last week, NASA announced that Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists will lead a new $200 million mission to aid the search for such planets, called exoplanets, sending a refrigerator-sized telescope into orbit around the Earth in 2017. The spacecraft, called TESS, will be a powerful new tool for scientists, allowing them to scour hundreds of thousands of stars for signs of exoplanets of the right size, temperature, and distance from their suns to support life.