NASA’s New Planet-Hunting Spacecraft Launches on Monday

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NASA could have a new tool to scout for exoplanets this summer. The long-awaited Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is set to launch as soon as Monday (a little behind schedule) on a mission to survey our galactic neighborhood for exoplanets. The mission isn’t just to spot them a la Kepler, but to gather data that can tell us what those planets are like. If there’s another Earth nearby, TESS could help us find it.

The launch is currently scheduled for April 16 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After reaching orbit, TESS will execute several burns over the course of two months to reach a lunar flyby orbit before settling into a 2:1 resonance orbit with Earth’s natural satellite in a highly elliptical Earth orbit. TESS is expected to remain in a stable orbit for at least 20 years, but the initial TESS mission is just two years long. NASA does have a way of extending missions for spacecraft that can still be of use, though.

During its mission, TESS will be hunting for exoplanets in a similar fashion to Kepler. As you can probably tell from the name, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will watch stars for dips in brightness, which can indicate a planet is transiting in front of them. Kepler uses the same method, but it’s peering out to a distance of around 3,000 light years in certain parts of the sky. TESS will look closer to home — a maximum distance of around 300 light years. However, it will be able to see in all directions thanks to an array of four cameras.

This spacecraft is on the lookout for a specific class of planets known as super-Earths. They’re smaller than Neptune, but a little bigger than Earth. Astronomers believe these are likely to be rocky planets that could support life. TESS will focus on the brightest nearby stars, and NASA expects to have scanned about 85 percent of the sky by the end of its two-year mission. The team is expecting to identify hundreds of super-Earth planets, including their mass, size, density, and orbital characteristics.

TESS should provide a roadmap for the James Webb Telescope, which is now expected to launch in 2020 or later after yet another delay. That instrument will have the ability to investigate distant objects like exoplanets, potentially returning data about atmospheric composition and weather. Until Webb launches, you’ll have to make do with TESS to get your exoplanet fix.

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