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April 5, 2018, 13:07 PDT

NASA's next planet-hunting mission: 5 reasons TESS is going to be awesome

Elisa Quintana, astrophysicist,
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Artist's rendering of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Image credit: NASA.

Artist's rendering of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Image credit: NASA.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scheduled to launch on April 16, is NASA’s next mission to search for exoplanets – planets outside our solar system. It will look for small planets orbiting nearby, bright stars. TESS will rely on the transit method, looking for periodic dips in starlight that could reveal a planet passing in front of its star.

Here’s why TESS is going to be great:

We’ll find planets everywhere

Thanks to the trailblazing of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, scientists now believe there may be at least one planet around every star in the sky. Kepler successfully discovered nearly 2,700 confirmed planets of all sizes and around all types of stars, as part of its census of how common exoplanets were, by observing 5 percent of the sky during it primary and K2 missions. TESS is designed with a larger field of view and will cover more than 85 percent of the night sky in its search of nearby exoplanets.

We’ll find planets close to Earth

Most of Kepler’s planets are hundreds of light-years away, close enough to measure their size and orbit, but too distant to search for any signs of life. TESS will observe stars that are nearby, relatively speaking, and 30 to 100 times brighter than those surveyed by Kepler, and therefore far easier to study with follow-up observations. TESS will usher in a new era, finding planets suitable for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Telescope, set to launch in 2020. The Webb telescope will examine light from these distant planets to learn the makeup of their atmospheres and look for signs of life.

TESS will likely observe your favorite exoplanets

Think of the sky as a giant sphere surrounding Earth, with TESS looking out from the inside. TESS will observe each half of that sphere for a year at a time, beginning in the south. In the first year, about 500 known exoplanets will be visible to TESS. In year two, over 3,000 will be in the TESS field of view – most of them Kepler planets, since TESS will be observing Kepler’s field of view.

We’ll produce a gold mine of data

TESS will collect starlight from over 200,000 stars every two minutes to search for transiting planets. In addition, TESS will also save the full images taken by each 16.8-megapixel camera every 30 minutes. These Full Frame Images (FFIs) will observe over 30 million astrophysical objects and will be available to the public. We now live in a time when anyone can be a planet (or star, or galaxy) hunter.

TESS can operate for a really long time

TESS plans to achieve its primary science goals with a two-year prime mission. But TESS has fuel reserves for more than a decade of operation if the mission is extended. TESS will be in a unique “high-Earth orbit” that has never been used before, and could remain in that orbit for over a hundred years!

Elisa Quintana is an astrophysicist and TESS Mission support scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Space Telescope Science Institute. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

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