SpaceX launches NASA TESS spacecraft on mission to find new worlds

$200 million mission expected to find thousands of planets


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Less than 30 years ago, it was unknown if our planet system was unique, now planetary scientists have confirmed thousands of these worlds orbiting stars outside our solar system, called exoplanets. On Wednesday, SpaceX launched NASA’s second spacecraft on the hunt for more worlds that could support life outside of our own solar system.

The MIT-led Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, also known as TESS, launched on a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.

About 10 minutes after launch SpaceX landed its rocket booster on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean to be refurbished and launched again.

The small spacecraft, which took up only a fraction of the 43-foot tall Falcon 9’s nose cone, is equipped with cameras to scan almost the entire night sky, looking at the nearest and brightest stars for exoplanets.

TESS will be looking for light from those stars to "wink" as planets pass in front. NASA scientists expect TESS to discover thousands more exoplanets to add to the roster from the Kepler spacecraft.

“It’s going to look for small dips in the starlight from those when a planet crosses in front of them and blocks out a small amount of that light,” MIT TESS researcher Natalia Guerrero said.

Guerrero, an Orlando native who went to Dr. Phillips High School, worked on TESS's camera testing team. After the spacecraft is operational, she’ll be working on the TESS objects of interest team, sifting through the data and finding interesting exoplanets and other astrophysical phenomena in the data.

Natalia Guerrero, an Orlando native, is part of the MIT TESS research team.
Natalia Guerrero, an Orlando native, is part of the MIT TESS research team.

Since the first discovery of an exoplanet in 1993, the study of these worlds has exploded to become one of the fastest growing fields of study in astronomy.

When NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, it was stared at one patch of sky searching for winking stars.

"A lot of people were in doubt that we would find anything," University of Central Florida Physics professor Joseph Harrington said. "It was looking at about the size of your fist. That’s a wide field of view for any telescope.

But Kepler did make discoveries. As its mission nears the end the spacecraft has found more than 2,300 confirmed worlds outside our solar system.

Those who study exoplanets and the stars they orbit are looking forward to a gold rush of discoveries data from the $200 million TESS mission. The small satellite will scan an area 350 times the size of Kepler.

"TESS is going to be looking at almost the entire sky, 85 percent, over the course of two years and trying to identify the brightest and nearest stars for follow up by other telescopes," Guerrero said.

When NASA's $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2020, TESS will help the advanced telescope know what stars to focus on.

"The planets that TESS observes, we can find out from their transits their size and their distance from their host star; and this helps us calculate whether or not the planet is in the habitable zone of its host star whether or not it can support liquid water on its surface," Guerrero said.

Based on those qualifications, TESS's team can follow up on those candidates with the James Webb Space Telescope to understand the composition of their atmospheres.

The telescope's launch delayed from 2018 to 2020 is frustrating for the astronomers waiting to use James Webb data, but for TESS, it was actually a benefit. The delay gives the spacecraft a two-year head start finding exoplanet candidates for James Webb to look at.

James Webb will use transit spectroscopy to measure the light coming through the planet's atmosphere.

"It's not just the planet that transits the star but the atmosphere," Florida Institute of Technology's Daniel Batcheldor, who leads the space and physics department, said. "If a planet has water in its environment, that trace will be there."

Discoveries from TESS will drive the growing study of exoplanets in astronomy, and hopefully garner interest to develop technology that will send a robotic mission to these worlds light-years away.

NASA’s new planet hunter is expected to be in its highly elliptical orbit searching for new worlds by June.

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