NASA Just Took a Giant Leap Forward in It’s Mission to Find Habitable Planets

Last week a Space X Falcon 9 Rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida and launched a very special satellite named TESS into Earth’s orbit. TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Surevey Satellite and its mission is to discover new planets. NASA is very excited about the possibilities.


“TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study,” TESS principal investigator George Ricker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said during a pre-launch briefing Sunday (April 15).

“It’s going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler,” Ricker added, referring to NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has spotted 2,650 confirmed exoplanets to date —about 70 percent of all the worlds known beyond our solar system.

As a side note, the Falcon 9 booster rocket safely returned to Earth just 9 minutes after it lifted off, landing safely on a drone ship located about 300 km off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

Here’s the video:

Like Kepler, TESS will find alien planets using the “transit method,” noting the tiny brightness dips these worlds cause when they cross their host stars’ faces. But there are some big differences between the missions.

During its prime mission from 2009 through 2013, Kepler stared continuously at a single patch of sky, monitoring about 150,000 stars simultaneously. (Kepler is now embarked on a different mission, called K2, during which it studies a variety of cosmic objects and phenomena, exoplanets among them.

But the iconic telescope’s days are numbered; it’s almost out of fuel.) Most of these stars are far from the sun — from several hundred light-years to 1,000 light-years or more.

But TESS will conduct a broad sky survey during its two-year prime mission, covering about 85 percent of the sky. The satellite will focus on the nearest and brightest stars, using its four cameras to look for worlds that may be close enough to be studied in depth by other instruments.

Indeed, TESS will rely on a variety of other telescopes on the ground and in space to help determine which of its “candidates” are bona fide planets, and to characterize the newly discovered worlds. One such partner will be NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2020. James Webb should be able to probe the atmospheres of at least a few TESS planets for oxygen, methane and other possible signs of life, NASA officials have said.

“TESS is the first step toward finding habitable planets,” mission project scientist Stephen Rinehart, who’s based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said during Sunday’s briefing.

Scientists, such as MIT’s Ricker theorize that in the next 50 – 100 years, we’ll probably have the ability to launch tiny robotic spacecraft to explore several of the nearby exoplanets — ones within a few hundred light years away.

One such Planet is Proxima B, a potentially habitable planet about 4.2 light years away.

TESS is also making history for the orbital path it will be taking around the Earth.

Frome DiscoverMagazine:

TESS also stands out because of the orbital path it will follow around Earth, blazing a course through space that no craft has ever flown. Thanks to the orbit’s elongated elliptical shape, says TESS principal investigator George Ricker of MIT, “we can stay away from Earth during observations and get close to Earth to transmit our data, once every 13 or so days.”

George Ricker, MIT

These and other orbital attributes will get TESS exactly where it needs to be — with relatively little expenditure of energy and money. That has caught the attention of scientists planning future space missions. It’s a unique orbit that, if not groundbreaking, is certainly “spacebreaking.”

TESS is currently going through a series of maneuvers and processes to get itself into orbit and become fully functional. Scientists are estimating that it will be fully operational by mid-June and we could be seeing some new planetary discoveries by the end of the year.