Just a week after NASA’s Kepler telescope woke up unexpectedly and began working once more, the space agency got some more happy news. Their latest planet-hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has captured its 'first light' image, a detailed picture of the southern sky.
A wide net cast
The science picture, taken with all four of TESS' wide-field cameras, shows an impressive and almost romantic wealth of stars and other celestial objects. “In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”
The pic features parts of a dozen constellations, both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the globular cluster 47 Tucanae, as well as stars Beta Gruis and R Doradus.
“This swath of the sky’s southern hemisphere includes more than a dozen stars we know have transiting planets based on previous studies from ground observatories,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge.
On the hunt for transits
TESS’ cameras are actually on the hunt for transits, celestial events that occur when a planet passes in front of its star. From a satellite's perspective, this results in a decrease in the star’s brightness.
TESS is scheduled to monitor 85 percent of the sky in two years, studying the 13 sectors making up the southern sky in its first year and the other half in the second. TESS transmits its findings every 13.7 days to NASA’s Deep Space Network who forwards them to the TESS Payload Operations Center at MIT.
The data is then further processed and studied in the Science Processing and Operations Center pipeline at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California in order to hopefully locate promising exoplanet transit candidates. The James Webb Space Telescope and other space and ground observatories also use spectroscopy to learn more about the TESS' planetary finds.
TESS is building on its predecessor Kepler's work, however, its target stars are 30 to 300 light-years away and about 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s which were also significantly farther (300 to 3,000 light-years away).
TESS has also started observations requested through the TESS Guest Investigator Program, a program which invites scientists to conduct research using the satellite.
So far the project has been very popular and very fruitful seeing many guest investigator proposals, according to NASA.
“The science community are chomping at the bit to see the amazing data that TESS will produce and the exciting science discoveries for exoplanets and beyond," said Padi Boyd, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.