NASA’s state-of-the-art planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (dubbed TESS for short), has been launched towards a designated Earth’s orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in an attempt to scour our cosmic neighborhood for more exoplanets, rocky worlds outside our solar system that orbit their host stars.
The refrigerator-sized TESS, a $337-million space telescope that aims to securitize 85 percent of the skies for alien worlds, took off heavenward from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6:51 p.m. local time (2251 GMT) on Wednesday.
The NASA’s newest planet-hunting spacecraft, equipped with four sensitive cameras, will reach a highly egg-shaped path that takes it close to the Earth’s sole natural satellite, the Moon, in mid-June and there it will commence sifting through the space shortly afterwards, if all goes according to plan.
TESS has been designed as a high-powered successor to the Kepler space observatory, which has orbited the Sun alongside the Earth for the past decade and discovered most of the exoplanets currently known to science through the method of Transit Photometry, that is measuring the minute dimming of a star as an orbiting planet passes between it and the Earth.
Since late 1988, some 3,700 exoplanets have been documented by astronomers using by all detection methods, including the Kepler space telescope, which is about to run out of fuel.
It will apply the transit method in an area 400 times larger than that covered by the Kepler mission, significantly raising hopes of finding further more Earth-like worlds in or near habitable zones. The habitable zone by definition is the area around a star where rocky planets have surfaces warm enough, with sufficient atmospheric pressure, to keep water in its liquid form.
Tess also differs from Kepler in its orbit. Whereas Kepler circles around the sun in a heliocentric orbit, TESS will zoom around our cosmic home, on an extremely elliptical, 13.7-day orbit that no manmade object has ever occupied before.
This orbit will take TESS as close to the Earth as 108,000 kilometers and as far away as 373,000 kilometers, NASA says, adding that the orbit is also highly stable and features fairly low radiation exposure and low thermal variation.
During the close approaches, the high-tech space telescope will be able to send its onboard data down to the Earth quickly and efficiently.
According to a statement published on NASA website, unlike Kepler, which focused on one portion of the sky and sought to find Earth-like planets, TESS will look for stars 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor.
Mission scientists say they hope to detect at least 500 Earth-sized planets and perhaps 20,000 new worlds in total.