The SpaceX Falcon 9 booster returned to Earth on Wednesday, landing on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean after putting a planet-hunting satellite into orbit.
It was the 13th successful drone ship landing and the first since February 6, when the center stage of the Falcon Heavy landed on Of Course I Still Love You, the drone ship used during Wednesday’s mission. The landing was the 24th successful landing for a Falcon 9 rocket, the 52nd overall Falcon 9 launch, and the eighth SpaceX launch of 2018. A Falcon 9 has landed successfully nine times on Of Course I Still Love You and four successful times on Just Read the Instructions, the Pacific Ocean drone ship.
It was the first successful Falcon 9 droneship landing in several missions, as SpaceX has instead used the last several Falcon 9 missions to test water landings for the first stage and a giant net boat to retrieve the rocket’s $6 million nose cone (called a fairing) that falls back to Earth after a mission. The fairing is what houses the payload, whether it be a satellite like on Wednesday, or a Red Tesla Roadster.
The payload in Wednesday’s mission was TESS (Transiting ExoPlanet Survey Satellite), which now has embarked on a two-year sightseeing tour of the cosmos. During its extraterrestrial journey, the small-but-mighty satellite will monitor up to 200,000 stars in the Milky Way in search of exoplanets — planets that exist outside of our solar system. NASA scientists hope that TESS will discover around 20,000 new exoplanets, a lofty goal considering that we’ve only found 3,700 up to now.
“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, told Inverse this month. “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.”
TESS is NASA’s most ambitious attempt yet to catalog the vast number of planets in our galaxy. The Kepler Spacecraft, which was launched in 2009, discovered around 2,700 exoplanets, so TESS is a big step up from its predecessor. Because TESS’s hardware is much more sophisticated than Kepler’s it’s estimated that the satellite will have examined around 85 percent of the visible galaxy during its mission.
With additional reporting by Kevin Litman-Navarro and Danny Paez.