NASA this week announced plans to launch two new projects: a mission to search for new planets, and an International Space Station (ISS) experiment to analyze X-rays emitted from neutron stars. Both are slated to launch in 2017, under the agency's Astrophysics Explorer Program.

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), backed by Google and MIT, uses a set of onboard cameras to scan the skies for so-called exoplanets orbiting bright and nearby stars. Its objective is to discover terrestrial planets — ranging in size from Earth equivalents to gas giants — within habitable regions of space. TESS will deploy techniques similar to those used by the Kepler telescope, which has thus far identified more than 2,700 potential exoplanets, though its scope will be much broader.

"thousands of new planets"

"TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission," MIT's George Ricker, TESS' principle investigator, said in a statement. "It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth."

NASA's second mission involves the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer — an instrument designed to observe and measure cosmic X-ray sources. The equipment will be mounted on the ISS, with the goal of analyzing the composition and exotic matter found within neutron stars.

"With these missions we will learn about the most extreme states of matter by studying neutron stars," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate science administer, said in a statement, "and we will identify many nearby star systems with rocky planets in the habitable zone for further study by telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope."