What Is an Exoplanet? NASA's TESS Mission Explores Alien Worlds

Artist concept of TESS in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star

Tess, which is expected to find thousands of new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including some that could support life, was earlier scheduled to launch on Monday (4.02 a.m. on Tuesday, India time) but was rescheduled to conduct further Guidance, Navigation, and Control analysis, NASA said.

TESS will begin a two-year planet hunting mission, searching our solar-system for other alien worlds.

"This method, called asteroseismology, helps us understand newly discovered planet systems, and gives us a way to study detailed physics inside stars under extreme conditions we can not reproduce here on Earth", he says.

TESS will build upon the legacy of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, which launched in 2009 and has since identified more than 2,300 confirmed exoplanets.

The launch, the eighth SpaceX mission of 2018, included a successful landing of the rocket's first stage on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

TESS separated from the Falcon's second stage less than an hour after lift-off and anxious boffins at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center were relieved to see the solar arrays of the spacecraft deploy and telemetry make its way to the ground stations. Like with other satellites, imagery from TESS will be used to analyze the possible characteristics of planets and their atmospheres.

The most promising candidates will be studied by bigger, more powerful observatories of the future, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in another few years as the heir to Hubble.

'Tess will tell us where to look at and when to look, ' said the mission's chief scientist, George Ricker of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The stories of these planets will continue on, long after their detection", Dr Martin Still, TESS programme scientist, said on Wednesday. Now, TESS is set to explore an area 400 times larger than Kepler's targeted area.

Like Kepler, TESS is created to locate exoplanets by searching for what astronomers call transits.

It will then switch to the northern sky during the second year, ultimately covering around 85 per cent of the sky. A data pipeline has been established so that TESS can fulfill its mission.

Tess will survey a huge number of stars, on the watch for dips in brightness that occur when orbiting planets cross past them.

"This is really going to be a case of "too many planets, not enough telescopes", says Jonti Horner, an astronomer at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), Australia.

More than 78% of the around 3,700 exoplanets that we have discovered have been found by using this method, according to NASA. Tess will be looking at stars that are between 30 and 300 light years away and up to 100 times brighter than what Kepler was staring at.

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