Musk's SpaceX Launches Planet-Hunter Satellite to Orbit

Ignacio Smith
April 19, 2018

Set to lift off early next week, the TESS spacecraft will prowl for planets around the closest, brightest stars.

SpaceX, which was founded by Musk in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the payload from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at around 6:51 p.m. local time. It's the next step in the search for planets outside our solar system, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. These so-called "transits" may mean that planets are in orbit around them.

Take two for SpaceX's TESS project. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, once launched in 2020 or so, will probe these planets' atmospheres for potential traces of life.

"The stories of these planets will continue on, long after their detection", Martin Still, TESS program scientist, said on Wednesday. As a result, the teams behind Kepler and TESS must analyze a lot of data, which is where AI comes in. They could fit in a mailbox. NASA's planet-hunting pioneer, the Kepler Space Telescope, has spent the past nine years focusing on considerably fainter, more distant stars and discovered almost three-quarters of the 3,700-plus exoplanets confirmed to date. In these images, astronomers will search for the slight changes in brightness that happen when a planet passes between its home star and TESS's lenses.

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The new spacecraft will focus on nearby exoplanets, those in the range of 30 to 300 light-years away.

The exoplanet count, from all observatories in space and on Earth over the past couple of decades, stands at more than 3,700 confirmed with 4,500 on the strong contender list.

"One of the many incredible things that Kepler told us is that planets are everywhere and there are all kinds of planets out there", said Patricia "Padi" Boyd, director of the TESS guest investigator program at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center. AI could allow a Mars Rover, for example, to operate for weeks or months when out of contact with Earth.

SpaceX has successfully brought NASA's new exoplanet-hunting telescope to high Earth orbit, from which, after one more burn, the satellite will be deployed.

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Blastoff followed a two-day launch postponement forced by a technical glitch in the rocket's guidance-control system.

Yesterday, the rocket performed flawlessly.

Following stage separation, SpaceX will attempt to land Falcon 9's first stage on the "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship, which will be stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

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