NASA has launched a new space telescope to hunt for exoplanets

Posted April 20, 2018

TESS is the space agency's newest planet-hunting spacecraft that will search for undiscovered planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets.

The satellite launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Centre today marks the start of the search for planets beyond the solar system and is expected to catalogue thousands of exoplanets.

Kepler, which now runs out of fuel and stops operating by the end of 2018, has already found more than 5,000 candidate exoplanets, of which about half have been confirmed by other telescopes.

Moments after takeoff, the Falcon 9 rocket landed as planned on a mobile landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean called "Of Course I Still Love You".

After the liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket sent the spacecraft on its way to orbit. Now, operators will use the satellite's onboard boosters to push it into its final orbit before beginning its observations of distant worlds.

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With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe.

It's even possible that TESS could find world that might be able to host life.

The technique it will use is fundamentally the same as that employed by NASA's long-running and highly successful Kepler mission.

"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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge. "Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for [four] years and taught us that Earths are everywhere", Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Center, said on a Reddit comment.

Researchers expect that TESS will find around 20,000 planets to target for future study, Nell says.

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TESS will carry out a broad sky survey during its two-year prime mission, covering about 85 percent of the sky.

The mission will explore a large number of stars based on transits of planets against the background stars. TESS will monitor thousands of stars simultaneously for such "transits", watching a single section of sky for a month straight before moving on to another. Said Hertz, "The planets that we are going to be most interested in looking for habitability are those that are rocky, and those that are the right temperature".

Currently, the total exoplanet census stands at more than 3700, with another 4500 on the not-yet-verified list.

Although TESS's planet detection method is identical to Kepler's, the just-launched instrument will observe stars 10 times closer and 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor.

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