NASA Launches Planet Hunter TESS in the First Mission to Find Planets Beyond Solar System

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Aniruddha Paul
Aniruddha Paul
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NASA’s planet hunter spacecraft TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has been launched on its first mission to find planets beyond our solar system and even some that may support life. TESS took off at 6.51 pm EDT yesterday, April 18, being carried by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

It was launched from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Several solar arrays were deployed to power the spacecraft at 7.53 pm EDT.

We are thrilled TESS is on its way to help us discover worlds we have yet to imagine, worlds that could possibly be habitable, or harbor life. With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe. – Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington

NASA TESS has been carrying wide-angle cameras in its mission for two years. Within the time span, it will photograph about 85% of outer space with the aim of detecting brief dips of light. The dips are created by the planets when they pass by a star. The phenomenon is called ‘transit’ by scientists, and over 78% of about 3,700 exoplanets were found with the help of transits. It is expected that the database over the two years will guide the missions of NASA in the coming decades!

In the coming several weeks, NASA TESS will take advantage of six thruster burns for traveling in a ‘series of progressively elongated orbits to reach the Moon.’ This will lead the spacecraft to obtain a gravitational assist to transfer it into the ‘13.7-day final science orbit around the earth.’ Then, there will be check-out and instrument testing for about 60 days, after which TESS is supposed to start its work.

One critical piece for the science return of TESS is the high data rate associated with its orbit. Each time the spacecraft passes close to Earth, it will transmit full-frame images taken with the cameras. That’s one of the unique things TESS brings that was not possible before. –  George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge.

Scientists divided the sky into 26 sectors for the two-year mission. TESS will use four unique wide-field cameras for mapping 13 sectors over the southern sky in the first year. The second year will see the satellite doing the same for the 13 sectors over the northern sky.

The method of transits was used by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which found about 2,650 exoplanets as a result. These exoplanets have been orbiting faint stars between 300 and 3,000 light years from our earth. TESS aims to focus on stars between 30 and 300 light years away from earth.

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. – TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart

TESS will as well be gunning for the stars that are 30 to 100 times brighter than the targets of Kepler. The brightness will let researchers use spectroscopy, which studies the absorption and emission of light. It will help determine the respective planet’s mass, density, and atmospheric composition. As for its capacity to harbor life, water and other key molecules in the atmosphere will provide hints.

Alongside the chief mission of NASA TESS spacecraft, the global community of scientists can conduct research on various other aspects like exoplanet characterization, stellar astrophysics, solar system, and distant galaxies. This is possible via the TESS Guest Investigator Program.

Stay tuned with us to know more about this entire space mission of NASA.

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