NASA’s TESS Satellite Launches to Seek Out New Alien Worlds
by Mike Wall April 18, 2018 (space.com)
• On April 18th, NASA launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or “TESS” from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (It was delayed two days to tweak the Falcon 9’s rocket’s guidance, navigation and control systems.) TESS’ two-year, $200M mission is to hunt for alien worlds in our local star system. The satellite will focus on the nearest and brightest stars, using its four cameras to look for worlds that may be close enough to be studied in depth by other instruments.
• TESS principal investigator George Ricker says, “TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study… “It’s going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler.” (The Kepler satellite previously mapped 2,650 nearby Exoplanets.) These satellites locate Exoplanets using the “transit method,” by noting tiny brightness dips these worlds cause when they cross their host star.
• TESS will zoom around our planet, on a highly elliptical 13.7-day orbit that no spacecraft has ever occupied before. This orbit will take TESS as close to Earth as 67,000 miles and as far away as 232,000 miles. TESS will arrive in its final orbit in mid-June, if all goes according to plan. The science campaign will start shortly thereafter.
The agency’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched today (April 18) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, rising off the pad atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:51 p.m. EDT (2251 GMT) and deploying into Earth orbit 49 minutes later.
TESS will hunt for alien worlds around stars in the sun’s neighborhood — planets that other missions can then study in detail. And the spacecraft will be incredibly prolific, if all goes according to plan.
“TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study,” TESS principal investigator George Ricker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said during a pre-launch briefing Sunday (April 15).
“It’s going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler,” Ricker added, referring to NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has spotted 2,650 confirmed exoplanets to date —about 70 percent of all the worlds known beyond our solar system.
And the Falcon 9’s first stage came back to Earth less than 9 minutes after liftoff today, touching down softly on a robotic SpaceX “drone ship” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has now pulled off two dozen such landings during Falcon 9 launches — part of the company’s push to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets and spacecraft, a breakthrough that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said will revolutionize spaceflight.
SpaceX has re-flown 11 of these first stages to date, but the tally didn’t increase today: This Falcon 9 was brand-new.
Today’s launch was originally scheduled for Monday evening (April 16), but it was delayed by two days to give SpaceX time to investigate a potential issue with the rocket’s guidance, navigation and control systems.
Looking for nearby worlds
Like Kepler, TESS will find alien planets using the “transit method,” noting the tiny brightness dips these worlds cause when they cross their host stars’ faces. But there are some big differences between the missions.
During its prime mission from 2009 through 2013, Kepler stared continuously at a single patch of sky, monitoring about 150,000 stars simultaneously. (Kepler is now embarked on a different mission, called K2, during which it studies a variety of cosmic objects and phenomena, exoplanets among them. But the iconic telescope’s days are numbered; it’s almost out of fuel.) Most of these stars are far from the sun — from several hundred light-years to 1,000 light-years or more.
But TESS will conduct a broad sky survey during its two-year prime mission, covering about 85 percent of the sky. The satellite will focus on the nearest and brightest stars, using its four cameras to look for worlds that may be close enough to be studied in depth by other instruments.
Watch this 4:10 minute NY Times video on the TESS mission
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