A spacecraft on a quest to discover Earth-like and potentially habitable worlds in other solar systems around other stars took to space on April 18, 2018, riding atop a shiny new SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will pick up where the Kepler spacecraft leaves off, as Kepler’s mission will soon end as the telescope’s fuel runs out.
“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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “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.”
Kepler focused on a small patch of the sky, detecting exoplanets very far away. TESS, however, will conduct a sky-wide survey, looking at the nearest and brightest stars. TESS stars will be 30-100 times brighter than those surveyed by Kepler, and can cover an area 400 times larger than what Kepler covered. In doing so, TESS aims to discover not just exoplanets, but specifically seeks to identify habitable, Earth-like worlds.
Orbital ATK designed, manufactured, integrated and tested the planet-hunting spacecraft, which was awarded to them by NASA in 2013.
“The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”
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Over at least two years, TESS will survey more than 200,000 stars, and will be able to find many new exoplanets orbiting these stars, including Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized (larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune), which are now known to be the most common in our galaxy. Later upcoming space telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will be able to then study these planets further and analyze their atmospheres for possible signs of life.
“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re going to be able 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.”
The main objective of the mission is to find smaller rocky planets, like Earth, orbiting closer stars in the solar neighborhood. It is anticipated that TESS will discover more than 3,000 planetary candidates and about 500 Earth-sized or super-Earth-sized worlds.
“TESS should discover thousands of new exoplanets within two hundred light years of Earth,” said TESS Principal Investigator George Rickerof the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. “Most of these will be orbiting bright stars, making them ideal targets for characterization observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”
Although Kepler and other telescopes have discovered over 3,500 exoplanets so far, most of them are very distant, making it difficult to learn more about their compositions, atmospheres, etc. TESS, however, will be able to study the planets’ mass, radius, orbit, planet-planet interactions, mutual inclinations, moons, tides and atmospheric composition and structure, including transmission spectrum, emission spectrum, albedo, phase function, clouds and winds.
TESS will complete two orbits around Earth every time the Moon orbits once, allowing its cameras to monitor each patch of sky continuously for nearly a month at a time. TESS will reach its final orbit about 60 days after launch.
“One critical piece for the science return of TESS is the high data rate associated with its orbit,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge. “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.”
“That’s our first Falcon from the East Coast, for our program,” said Chuck Dovale, deputy manager of NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center. “It’s a big step for us.”
Picking up where Kepler leaves off, TESS will begin a new era in exoplanet science, perhaps helping to answer the age-old question – “Are we alone?”
“This unique new data will comprise a treasure trove for astronomers throughout the world for many decades to come,” Ricker said. As TESS Project Manager Jeff Volosin at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. also eloquently noted, “I’m still hopeful that in my lifetime, we will discover the existence of life outside of our Solar System and I’m excited to be part of a NASA mission that serves as a key stepping stone in that search.”
SpaceX successfully landed their new booster on their offshore drone ship shortly after launch too.
– Written by Mike Killian and Paul Scott Anderson
BELOW: More of our images covering the launch of TESS for NASA