NASA’s TESS to launch on Monday to hunt planets

Soon, a swarm of robotic bees will investigate the Martian atmosphere

A new NASA planet-hunting spacecraft, TESS, is all set to write the next revolutionary chapter in astronomy by unveiling more details regarding the nearest exoplanets and, probably, uncovering the initial signs of life seen beyond Earth.

Over the past several years Kepler Space Telescope of NASA has accelerated the pace of discovery, making it transparent the galaxy is awash with planets.  But Kepler is crippled and is running out of fuel. Fortunately, its successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is readily sitting in the nose cone of a rocket at Florida. The deputy manager of the TESS Objects of Interest project, Natalia Guerrero said that a lot of the stars that Kepler found exoplanets around were extremely faint and really far away that made them really difficult to follow up on from the ground, hence, TESS came about to be even more useful to the broader astronomical community.

The NASA-funded spaceship is not larger than a refrigerator and has four cameras that were designed, conceived, and built at MIT, with a single wide-eyed vision, which is to survey the nearest and brightest stars in the sky for the signs of passing planets.

Presently, more than a decade since the MIT scientists initially proposed the mission, TESS is about to get off the ground. The NASA spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 16th April at 6:32 p.m. EDT. TESS would spend two years scanning the entire sky, a field of view that could encompass more than 20 million stars. The scientists expect that thousands of these stars would host transiting planets that they hope to locate through images taken with the cameras of TESS.

While looking for the exoplanets, TESS would also witness other unrelated phenomena, such as possible supernovae or the other fast-changing objects. Guerrero said that the TESS team is working on the ways to share those findings publicly. Unlike many big science missions, TESS would not have any proprietary information and everything that it collects would stream into a data archive that any scientist could use right away. Guerrero said that when TESS was being designed, one of its taglines was that it is the people’s telescope and they are trying really hard to stay true to that goal.

The launch of Monday marks the first time that NASA has used the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for a science mission. After the launch, TESS would refine its orbit for two months before it starts data collection. It would sail around the Earth every 13.7 days, in an elliptical orbit. The moon’s gravity would stabilize TESS without requiring extra fuel that could prolong the mission’s life.

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