NASA’s new planet hunter satellite

NASA is set to launch a spacecraft on a $337-million mission in the coming weeks, with scientists hoping to discover exoplanets capable of supporting life outside our solar system.

The hunt is on to discover new and exciting worlds! NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite – TESS – is scheduled to launch April 16 to find thousands of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. In the past ten years, NASA has discovered and studied thousands of these planets – including the TRAPPIST-1 system, which could have the ingredients to support life. TESS is expected to add thousands more planets to this growing list during its two-year mission, looking at the nearest and brightest stars in our galaxy to see if there are worlds hiding in their light.

NASA’s latest endeavour is designed to build on the work of its predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, which discovered the majority of some 3,500 exoplanets documented throughout the past 20 years, revolutionising one of the most modern fields in space science.

NASA hopes TESS will detect thousands more unfamiliar worlds, perhaps hundreds of them the size of Earth, or “super-Earth”-sized – no bigger than twice the size of our home planet.

A revolution in astronomy has been playing out in the background of our lives. It took humanity 4,000 years to discover eight planets and roughly 20 years to discover 4,000 of them.

TESS is designed to work in tandem with the still-grounded James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s $8 billion successor to the famed Hubble. Webb has suffered an additional delay, however, and won’t fly before May 2020. When both are operating, those exoplanets that TESS suggests are promising will be sent to the Webb for deeper analysis, NASA officials said.

NASA will launch TESS into orbit from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on April 16. Source: NASA

The TESS “specialty” will be the study of M-class stars, or red dwarfs, the coolest and most common in the galaxy, and not visible to the naked eye. “Ninety percent of the stars we know of in the Milky Way are redder and cooler than is our sun,” said George Ricker Jr., the TESS principal investigator and an MIT senior researcher. “This is exactly the thing that we wanted to do for this mission.”

Kepler also helped in a 2011 discovery of a planet orbiting two stars, called Kepler-16b, about 2,000 light years from Earth. It was the first confirmation of a circumbinary planet or one with two suns. (Kepler-16b also means that Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars, Tatooine—and its double sunsets—has at least one basis in scientific fact.)

“So it’s perfect timing that we’ll be launching TESS to continue the great activity of looking for planets around stars other than our sun and thinking about what it might mean for life in the universe”

Paul Hertz, NASA’s director of astrophysics

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