NASA is set to have a monumental 2018. The space agency has 14 launches scheduled to hit the sky, the first one being the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is slated to depart from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 16 at 6:32 p.m. Eastern aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. This exoplanet-hunting mission will give astronomers like Patrick McCarthy at the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) the ability to look at a map of thousands of potential homes for extraterrestrial life.
“Some of the most interesting work that TESS will enable centers on probing the chemistry of planets,” McCarthy, the Vice President for Operations and External Relations of GMTO, tells Inverse. “As a planet passes in front of its star, a large telescope on the ground, like the GMT, can use spectra to search for the fingerprints of molecules in the planetary atmosphere.”
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This exoplanet-hunting spacecraft will spend two years scanning an area encompassing more than 20 million stars. Scientists anticipate that thousands of the stars analyzed by TESS will be host to planets with the potential of supporting life. All of the data pouring in from this mission will allow researchers to identify the exoplanets most likely to be habitable.
This refrigerator-sized satellite will carry on the legacy started by the Kepler spacecraft in the search for a world with the ingredients to harbor life. TESS’s predecessor was able to identify 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of planets to date — but it wasn’t able to examine them any further.
While this planetary haul is massive, many of the exoplanets found by Kepler orbit extremely distant stars making it difficult for scientists to study them in detail. TESS will focus on the brightest stars in the sky, or the closest, giving astronomers the ability to take a much more in-depth look at their composition. This will be done using the satellite’s four mounted cameras that were designed a built by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We’re on this scenic tour of the whole sky, and in some ways we have no idea what we will see,” Natalia Guerrero the deputy manager of TESS Objects of Interest, says in a statement. “It’s like we’re making a treasure map: Here are all these cool things. Now, go after them.”
Hopefully, that map leads to the holy grail of space exploration: the discovery of microbial life elsewhere in the universe.