NASA launches telescope to hunt down planets

NASA’s TESS satellite launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday, on a mission to catalog thousands of planets outside the Solar System.

Roughly the size of a refrigerator, TESS, which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will survey an area of sky 400 times greater (CNN) than its 2009 predecessor, Kepler, which mapped over 2,000 exoplanets. During its two-year mission, TESS will observe around 200,000 of the stars closest to Earth (The Economist).

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“The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist. “It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Sara Seager, TESS deputy science director said: “Think of it [the TESS mission] as a phone book; you’ll be able to look up the ones that interest you.”

Upcoming telescopes such as the James Webb space observatory, due into orbit in 2020, and the ground-based European Extremely Large Telescope, scheduled for operation in the early 2020s, will further investigate these discoveries (The Economist).

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TESS will observe “transits,” or the phenomena when a planet passes in front of its star, changing the star’s brightness. NASA said that more than 78 percent of around 3,700 confirmed exoplanets have been found using this method.

Some of the planets that TESS finds might orbit in the “Goldilocks zone” of their parent stars, where temperatures allow liquid water to exist, and therefore complex life is more likely too. This is scientifically known as the “circumstellar habitable zone” but gets its alternative name from the children’s fairy tale where Goldilocks picks the bowl of porridge that is neither too cold, too hot, but “just right.”

The idea for TESS goes all the way back to 2006, when it was called the HETE-S, a continuation of the High Energy Transient Explorer line of satellites, developed by MIT. Early on, the proposal for the satellite was for it to be privately funded, asking for a modest $20 million (MIT). As interest in the mission grew, it was renamed to TESS and proposed as a NASA Small Explorer class mission in 2008, which would allow for funding up to $120 million. It was re-proposed as a Medium Explorer Class mission in 2010, allowing for funding up to $180 million. After the mission was approved by NASA in 2013, Orbital ATK was awarded a four-year, $75 million contract to build TESS, and SpaceX was awarded an $87 million contract to launch it.

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