NASA’s giant cameras capture 29 exoplanets in an incredible single image

You've never seen a night sky like this.

NASA has captured the Milky Way galaxy trailing across the southern sky, in a stunning high-resolution image that highlights an impressive amount of exoplanets beyond our world.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, also known as TESS, is a sky-surveying satellite that’s designed to capture the entire sky over two years, breaking into 26 sectors measuring 24 degrees by 96 degrees each. Where its predecessor Kepler detected nearly 2,700 planets from its March 2009 launch to its retirement in October 2018, TESS is tasked with surveying 200,000 stars over the course of its life. SpaceX launched the TESS on April 18, 2018.

In an awe-inspiring display of this satellite’s new capabilities, the team revealed a mosaic Tuesday of the southern sky.

“Analysis of TESS data focuses on individual stars and planets one at a time, but I wanted to step back and highlight everything at once, really emphasizing the spectacular view TESS gives us of the entire sky,” Ethan Kruse, a NASA postdoctoral program fellow, said in a statement. Kruse created the mosaic at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The TESS image in all its glory.
The TESS image in all its glory.

The team approached the challenge by focusing on 13 sections of the sky. Each section was captured over the space of one month using four cameras, using 16 charge-coupled devices each. The scene above was created from 208 satellite images taken from the craft’s first year of operation, which concluded on July 18.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the image is that it captures 29 exoplanets, planets outside of our solar system. It also captured a further 1,000 candidate planets that the team is now investigating. In total, the NASA Exoplanet Archive lists a total 4,084 confirmed planets, meaning TESS is already on track to make a big contribution to the knowledge of outer space.

Beyond making impressive images of the sky, TESS could help humanity understand what lies beyond the solar system.

The solar system, a small fraction of the galaxy.
The solar system, a small fraction of the galaxy.

TESS detects exoplanets using the transit method. This means it looks at a star and measures the dip in its brightness, which would indicate that it has a planet orbiting and blocking the view. When the satellite detects a potential planet, it relays the data so the ground-based team can look in closer detail.

This ground-based team should be able to identify the planet’s mass, orbit and size. The team can determine the size by measuring how much light it blocks, and the orbit by measuring how long it blocks the light. This could help the team understand whether a planet is rocky, gassy, or something even unexpected.

A concept image of the TESS mission.
A concept image of the TESS mission.

The satellite completes a full sector of the sky every 30 minutes. It transmits an image when a planet passes between the host star and the camera. Over the course of its first year of operation, each charge-coupled device collected 15,347 30-minute images. These images form a section of the vast 20 terabytes of data the project has collected from the southern sky, the equivalent of around 6,000 high-definition movies.

TESS pales in comparison to Kepler, its predecessor. The satellite is covering an area 400 times larger than Kepler, observing stars that are 30 to 100 times brighter.

SpaceX launched the TESS onboard a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Following the launch, SpaceX successfully landed the Falcon 9’s booster on droneship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean. The landing was the 13th successful landing in the company’s history.

From here, TESS will now spend a year surveying the southern sky. What it captures during its mission remains to be seen.