NASA, Space X set to launch satellite TESS to hunt exoplanets

Ignacio Smith
April 18, 2018

TESS is designed as a follow-on to the USA space agency's Kepler spacecraft, which was the first of its kind and launched in 2009.

Armed with four sensitive cameras, the refrigerator-sized satellite will seek out the tiny, telltale dips in a star's light that occur when a planet "transits", or passes in front of it. This telescope should be ready for launch by the year's end. In the nine years that the now-aging Kepler has been aloft, it has detected 2,343 confirmed exoplanets, as well as another 2,244 candidate planets that need further study.

It will hopefully happen just in time; NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which has been searching for exoplanets for the last nine years is running on fumes, and it's expected to run out in the next few months, Nadia Drake reports for National Geographic.

Unlike Kepler however, Tess will be able to search an area 400 times larger. This includes 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars.

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To carry out its mission, TESS needs to reach a particular orbit.

"We're expecting to find 2,000-3,000 planets that are certainly below the size of our Jupiter and a lot of them below the size of Neptune; so, the ones that have the potential for being terrestrial, for being rocky", said Jennifer Burt from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which leads the mission. The main objective will be to find the so-called Earth 2.0 - an exoplanet capable of supporting life.

TESS is looking for small, rocky, Earth-like planets, which are most likely to be found orbiting red dwarfs like Barnard's Star, named after the Vanderbilt astronomer who first discovered it.

NASA expert Dr Martin Still said: "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes between planets the size of Mercury or even the moon, our moon, to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between". The transit method allows to determine the size of the planet, its density and composition of the atmosphere. After its two-year mission, TESS will be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope, a space telescope scheduled to launch in May 2020.

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There are many definitions of an Earth-like exoplanet. In this respect, TESS will replace its predecessor Kepler, which surveyed almost 150,000 stars for planets of different types, some of which were later studied by the Hubble space telescope.

The NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission is led and operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center. "We're on this scenic tour of the whole sky, and in some ways we have no idea what we will see".

If it doesn't launch Wednesday, NASA still has a launch window for nearly every other day this week.

"TESS is very much a trash-treasure sort of mission", said Natalia Guerrero, deputy manager for the TESS Objects of Interest team.

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