17 April, 2018
TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA's latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets-including those that could potentially support life.
"TESS will collect 27 gigabytes per day in its all-sky search for undiscovered planets orbiting 200,000 of the brightest and closest stars in our solar neighborhood", NASA explains on its website. "If you just know that a planet is twice the size of Earth, it could be a lot of things: a rocky world with a thin atmosphere, or what we call a "mini-Neptune" - a rocky world with a giant gas envelope, where it would be a huge greenhouse blanket, and there would be no life on the surface".
Once in space, TESS will embark on a two-year mission to survey about 85 percent of the sky, which holds about 20 million stars.
The satellite's objective is to extend the successful mission of the Kepler Space Telescope by observing stars and monitoring them for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits.
"TESS's legacy will be a catalog of the nearest and brightest stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will comprise the most favorable targets for detailed investigations in the coming decades", NASA notes.
Previous mission Kepler informed the space agency of the existence of exoplanets with TESS now ready to find out more.
Guidance, navigation and control is always important for a space mission - but for TESS, the task is particularly complex. The new targeted launch date is Wednesday, April 18.
Here's a peek at little Tess and its creators' big ambitions.
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By watching a star over time, astronomers can monitor for repeating and regular dips in the star's brightness, which indicate the existence of an orbiting planet.
At the moment when the spacecraft launches, astronomers will know of almost 4,000 alien worlds outside our solar system. Such planets would be candidates for harboring life.
Since the planets discovered by TESS will be much closer, they can be studied much more easily.
"TESS is helping us explore our place in the universe", said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters.
TESS improves upon its predecessor in several ways.
"Tess will tell us where and when to point", said Cheops' Esa project scientist, Kate Isaak. "We're on this scenic tour of the whole sky, and in some ways we have no idea what we will see".
"Not only scientists will be following up these planets, but also amateur astronomers can use their own smaller telescopes to help confirm which planets are true, and which are not", said Diana Dragomir, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.