While the exploration of the solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life has been going on for decades, NASA recently took a huge step forward with the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Exoplanets are planets outside the solar system that orbit a star.
TESS, which lifted off at 6:51 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, April 18 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, is an explorer-class planet-finder with the ability to detect planets of nearly all sizes. NASA’s overall goal for TESS is to find planets with larger host stars so that the composition and atmospheres of those planets can be further studied.
TESS is now a NASA-based mission, although it initially began as a small, privately funded mission in 2006 backed by Google and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
MIT had originally proposed the TESS mission to NASA astrophysicists in 2008, although it wasn’t selected by NASA until 2013. MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research still remains partnered with NASA on the mission.
For a few weeks after its initial launch, TESS will use thrusters to travel in elongated orbits before reaching the moon. Following two months of instrument testing with NASA, the satellite will begin its work.
NASA plans for TESS to be in orbit for the next two years. During that time, NASA hopes for TESS to detect exoplanets in transit, the stage when a planet, from the satellite’s view, is directly in front of the host star. According to scientists, TESS should detect about 1,500 during its flight.
For the purpose of this mission, scientists at NASA divided the sky into 26 sections; TESS will use four wide-field cameras to record observations from the first 13 sectors in the first year and the other 13 in the second year.
“One critical piece for the science return of TESS is the high data rate associated with its orbit,” George Ricker, the TESS principal investigator at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics, said according to a press release from NASA. “Each time the spacecraft passes close to Earth, it will transmit full-frame images taken with the cameras. That’s one of the unique things TESS brings that was not possible before.”
The Kepler mission, launched in 2009, was designed to survey the Milky Way Galaxy and discover thousands of Earth-sized planets. It has provided groundbreaking information about the population of many different exoplanets. However, the TESS mission is expected to provide even more detailed insight, because the stars that TESS will survey will be much brighter, making the planets easier to characterize.
Furthermore, TESS will get an even stronger analysis of the planets with surveys from the James Webb Space Telescope in addition to other larger ground-based telescopes.
Stephen Rinehart, a project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that he was extremely excited about TESS’ capabilities.
“The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come,” said Rinehart. “It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”
While many may question the importance of funding for further space exploration missions like TESS, freshman Kathleen Garvey explained in an interview with The News-Letter why she believes that space exploration should be further pursued.
“I think space travel is important because it is a way for humans to explore the cosmos and push our knowledge to limits not yet known,” said Garvey. “Incredible research is conducted in space that [can solve] many problems that we have.”