NASA's Next Exoplanet Hunter Is on Schedule to Launch This Year

While the future of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope hangs in the balance, the space agency’s effort to scour the universe for Earth-like exoplanets is alive and well. During a NASA news briefing Wednesday, scientists and engineers involved in the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) confirmed that the spacecraft is on schedule to launch April 16.

The exoplanet-seeking satellite will take to the sky aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. From there, TESS will set off on its mission to analyze 200,000 nearby star systems for worlds that could potentially harbor life, to carry on Kepler’s legacy. During its cosmic journey, the spacecraft is expected to find at least 300 Earth-sized planets, giving scientists a plethora of new data to pile through in the search of a hospitable exoplanet.

Illustration of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star. TESS will identify thousands of potential new planets for further study and observation.NASA/GSFC

“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” TESS project scientist says Stephen Rinehart in a statement. “We’re going to be able to study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Four cameras will give TESS a view that covers 85 percent of our sky. This entire field-of-view has been broken up into 26 sectors that the satellite will observe one by one, mapping each region. It will be set on an elliptical, 13.7-day orbit around the Earth. TESS will spend most of its time snapping images of space, but when it passes close to Earth, it will quickly beam the data it gathered and then start its lap all over again.

This animation shows how a dip in the observed brightness of a star may indicate the presence of a planet passing in front of it, an occurrence known as a transit.NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

TESS will use an exoplanet detection technique called transit photometry. Instead of trying to pinpoint planets, the satellite will look to their stars to see what is orbiting them. When a planetary mass passes in front of a star, the star’s brightness decreases for a moment, depending on how large the orbiting object is. Scientists on the ground can glean its orbit, mass, and size from this information, and that’s enough for them to figure out its composition.

With TESS spying on nearby portions of space, scientists have a real shot at finding a planet out there with the ingredients to support life.

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