NASA’s planet-detecting satellite TESS in final stages of launch preparation

TESS is expected to detect thousands of Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized exoplanets.
By Brian Whittaker,
NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), shown here in a conceptual illustration, will identify exoplanets orbiting the brightest stars just outside our solar system.

NASA’s Space scientists are preparing to launch a new craft called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, better known as TESS, into space aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on April 16 on a two-year, $337 (£240) million mission. The spacecraft aims to find undiscovered worlds around nearby stars, providing targets where future studies will assess their capacity to harbor life, NASA said.

“One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an astronomer finds a planet in a star’s habitable zone, will it be interesting from a biologist’s point of view?” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the MIT, which is leading the mission.“We expect TESS will discover a number of planets whose atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life, could be precisely measured by future observers.”

On March 15, the spacecraft passed a review that confirmed it was ready for launch. For final launch preparations, the spacecraft will be fuelled and encapsulated within the payload fairing of its Falcon 9 rocket, NASA said. 

Thanks to TESS, the US Space agency now aims to survey 200,000 of the brightest stars near the sun to search for transiting exoplanets as well as a number of planets whose atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life, could be precisely measured by future observers.

TESS scientists expect the mission will catalogue thousands of planet candidates and vastly increase the current number of known exoplanets. Of these, approximately 300 are expected to be Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized exoplanets, which are worlds no larger than twice the size of Earth. TESS will find the most promising exoplanets orbiting our nearest and brightest stars.

The stars TESS will study are 30 to 100 times brighter than those the Kepler mission and K2 follow-up surveyed. TESS will also cover a sky area 400 times larger than that monitored by Kepler. In addition to its search for exoplanets, TESS will allow scientists from the wider community to request targets for astrophysics research on approximately 20,000 additional objects. 

TESS is equipped with four powerful special cameras 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 cameras on the spacecraft will stare at each sector for at least 27 days, looking at the brightest stars at a two-minute cadence. 

The TESS mission is also expected to conduct ground-based follow-up observations to confirm that the exoplanets candidates are true exoplanets and not false positives. Using the known planet size, orbit and mass, TESS and ground-based follow-up will be able to determine the planets’ compositions. This will reveal whether the planets are rocky (like Earth), gas giants (like Jupiter) or something even more unusual, NASA noted. 

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