After being delayed by a rocket issue, NASA launched its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) today at 6:51 p.m. EDT (2251 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. TESS, which NASA calls its “newest planet-hunter,” is the first such mission to ride on a Falcon 9.
The launch was preceded by constant social media postings by both NASA and Space X, as well as many other outlets, and covered live on NASA TV. The $337m mission also witnessed constant updated media coverage.
Surveying 200,000 suns
According to NASA, the satellite’s mission will be to survey 200,000 stars near the sun, 30 to 100 times brighter than those studied by previous missions Kepler and K2 follow-up, in search of transiting exoplanets.
“TESS will survey the entire sky over the course of two years by breaking it up into 26 different sectors, each 24 degrees by 96 degrees across. The powerful cameras on the spacecraft will stare at each sector for at least 27 days, looking at the brightest stars at a two-minute cadence,” said NASA in statement.
Year one will see TESS explore the Southern Hemisphere and move to the Northern Hemisphere in year two. Impressively enough, the satellite is reportedly only around the size of a refrigerator with cameras on top and solar wings on its side.
NASA’s previous mission, the Kepler space telescope launched in 2009, found more than 2,300 exoplanets and led astronomers to deduce that our galaxy may house billions of habitable planets. Now, TESS is set to explore an area 400 times larger than Kepler’s targeted area.
“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.
“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.”
Detecting brightness variations
Similarly to Kepler, TESS will function by picking up on variations in the brightness of stars. When exoplanets travel in front of stars, they block their light causing their brightness to dim.
Scientists expect TESS to find thousands of exoplanets of which about 500 could be Earth-sized. A number of these are also expected to be within the habitable zones of their corresponding stars hopefully producing environments conducive to life.
Since TESS will be targeting brighter stars that are closer to the sun, astronomers hope that the exoplanets discovered will be readily observable by NASA’s next mission; the James Webb Space Telescope due to launch in 2020. Meanwhile, NASA used another of Musk's Falcon 9 rockets last week to send sperm samples to the International Space Station for studies.