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NASA's TESS to launch on Monday to hunt planets

16 April 2018

As MIT professor, Sara Seager, explained that NASA's new satellite will be the flawless tool for discovering which new exoplanets we should be studying next.

TESS's mission is to monitor and catalogue over 200,000 stars in space for signs of other existing planets.

The goal: To find planets that are smaller than Neptune, with a radius less than about four times that of Earth.

At last count NASA's planet finder has helped identify 2400 alien planets of all sizes, including entire solar systems, orbiting faraway stars.

"There's no science that will tell us life is out there right now, except that small rocky planets appear to be incredibly common", MIT exoplanet hunter Sara Seager said.

NASA has employed space-based telescopes to find answers to these questions for decades.

"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".

The survey, also known as Tess, is NASA's next step in the search for exoplanets, including those that could support life.

TESS will take the torch that Kepler lit and run with it.

During its almost ten-year term in space, the Kepler mission confirmed more than 2,600 exoplanets, many of them thousands of light years away. Together, the cameras will stare at a vertical strip of the celestial sphere stretching from the pole to the equator, proceeding to a new strip every 27 days.

But if Kepler was a telephoto aimed at dim targets far in the distance, TESS is an ultra-wide-angle lens that will watch almost the entire visible sky.

"TESS is going to look for planets around other stars by watching the slight dip in brightness of the star as the planet passes in front of it", explained Paul Hertz, director, Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

These planets will be some of our closest neighbours, orbiting stars we can actually see when we look up at the sky. But since the 13 observation strips in each hemisphere overlap at the poles, TESS will have eyes on both the northern and southern polar skies for almost a year at a time.

It will also be in an orbit that comes to within 100,000km of Earth (Kepler was about 10 million kilometres away) so it will be able to download a lot of data very quickly.

TESS will spend around two years, surveying some 200000 of the brightest stars near the Sun in search of planets.

This unique orbit maximizes the sky that TESS can see, minimizes the effect of the moon's pull, and regularly brings it close enough to send data home for a short period.

This stable 13.7 day "lunar resonant" orbit, which has never been tried before, should allow TESS to operate for well beyond two years, said Professor Ricker.

"TESS is going to essentially provide the catalog, like the phone book, if you will, of all the best planets for following up, for looking at their atmospheres and studying more about them."

NASA's TESS to launch on Monday to hunt planets