The agency’s Tess spacecraft has started its science missions, exploring the universe as it looks for new planets. It engineers hope that it will eventually find thousands of alien worlds, some of which could be habitable.

The craft – whose name stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite – will look deep in the universe for signs of planets. Any that are found will be explored from afar, as scientists try to work out what it might be like on those planets, and whether life could survive there.

Like the Kepler satellite that preceded it, Tess will use a detection method called transit photometry. That involves watching distant stars for any dips of light caused by planets that pass in front of them, and using the patterns of those dips to work out how big they might be and what their orbits are.

That technique has already allowed Kepler to find thousands of possible planets, some of which are key candidates for habitability. Tess is expected to find thousands more.

Its work has already begun and it will send its first set of science data back in August. After that it will send down new findings roughly every fortnight, and the science team will scour through it for signs of planets as soon as it arrives.

“I’m thrilled that our planet hunter is ready to start combing the backyard of our solar system for new worlds,” said Paul Hertz, Nasa Astrophysics division director at its headquarters in Washington. “With possibly more planets than stars in our universe, I look forward to the strange, fantastic worlds we’re bound to discover.”

Tess’s mission is scheduled to last for two years. But Kepler and other Nasa projects have lasted much longer than those initial projects, so it could be peeking through our universe for much longer than that.

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