NASA Is Launching New Satellite to Search for Exoplanets

NASA is launching a new satellite that is solely designed to detect planets orbiting distant stars beyond our solar system. The new satellite will be launched from Florida on Monday on a SpaceX rocket.

The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is set to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:32 p.m. EDT, as part of $337 million two-year mission concentrated in astronomy’s newest field of exploration.

The new satellite will be carried aloft by a Falcon 9 rocket that is part of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private launch service, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.

TESS is designed to continue the work of its predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, which changed our view of the cosmos with discovering more than 3,700 exoplanets which were documented by astronomers during the past decade. Kepler which has been in space for almost 20 years is about to run out of fuel.

NASA expects to discover thousands of unknown worlds, hoping that hundreds of them will be Earth-sized or “super-Earth”-sized meaning that they need to be no larger than twice as big as our home planet in order to support life as we know it.

Earth-like planets are the most likely to feature rocky surfaces or oceans, meaning they are the best candidates for life to evolve, as opposed to gas giants like Jupiter or Neptune.

The Satellite is the size of a refrigerator with solar-panel wings and equipped with four special cameras. TESS will take about 60 days to reach a highly elliptical, first-of-a-kind orbit looping it between Earth and the moon every two and a half weeks, Reuters wrote.

TESS is going to use the same detection method as Kepler, which is called transit photometry, meaning it looks for periodic, repetitive dips in the visible light from stars caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of them.

However, unlike Kepler which was fixed on a tiny fraction of the sky, TESS will scan a broader area in order to focus on 200,000 pre-selected stars that are closer to Earth and thus among the brightest as seen from Earth.

The new project concentrates on stars called red dwarfs, which are smaller, cooler and longer-lived than our sun. Red dwarfs also have a higher probability of Earth-sized, presumably rocky planets.

Because the planets circling them are bigger relative to the size of the star, as well as their orbit is at a closer distance, the slight disruptions of visible light from their transits are more noticeable, scientists said.

Measuring the blips in starlight is used to determine the exoplanet’s size and orbital path, then with additional observations from ground telescopes their mass and ultimately the planet’s density and composition, whether largely solid, liquid or gas is found out.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) which is a space telescope developed in collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency and is set to launch in 2018 is going to take a closer look at the exoplanets discovered by TESS in order to determine if on them there are signs of water and atmospheric gases that on Earth are indicators of life.

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