NASA Will Soon Launch Their State-of-the-Art TESS Telescope to Find Habitable Exoplanets

Saturday, 14 April 2018 - 2:42PM
Space
NASA
Saturday, 14 April 2018 - 2:42PM
NASA Will Soon Launch Their State-of-the-Art TESS Telescope to Find Habitable Exoplanets
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NASA
Early next week, NASA will launch their Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite - or TESS, for short - from Cape Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 rocket courtesy of SpaceX (NASA won't buy rockets from SpaceX, but they're fine with renting them out every so often).

Assuming all goes well, the Falcon 9 carrying TESS will take off no later than the evening of Monday, April 16, 2018, giving NASA a wide launch window to ensure that conditions are just right during launch. Once up in space, TESS will be at the center of a newer initiative by NASA: the hunt for exoplanets.

Defined simply as planets orbiting around distant stars, we've just recently began discovering tons and tons of exoplanets in different solar systems as our stargazing technology steadily improves. And TESS will be among the best stargazers in space, at least in terms of specifically spotting exoplanets.

Because while TESS isn't good at taking detailed photos, it does have four wide-field cameras for scanning over 200,000 stars for transit events, the primary way we track down new exoplanets. Since it's tough to look up and "see" tiny planets in the shadows of stars hundreds or thousands of lightyears away, we have to look for signs of tiny things briefly blocking the light of a star. This is called a transit, and it's the first sign that we've found an exoplanet.



Think of it as casting a wide net rather than a deep one, while more high-quality telescopes will soon be in space alongside TESS to zero in its findings. The best camera will be the James Webb Space Telescope, an advanced telescope and successor to the Hubble which was supposed to launch much closer to TESS. But while TESS has gone fairly smoothly, the James Webb has failed several tests during construction and may not launch until 2020.

But while TESS' counterpart might not be launching at a similar time, it isn't a huge loss right now. As mentioned earlier, we've been able to pinpoint a large number of exoplanets in the past few years, between discoveries like the exoplanet Proxima b in the neighboring Proxima Centauri system, to the 12 potentially habitable exoplanets in the Trappist-1 solar system.   

Once we find an exoplanet, we can look more closely at its composition and distance from its star, and determine whether or not it might be habitable. That way, far in our future, we'll have a destination in mind if we ever need to hightail it out of our own solar system.

But until that day comes, TESS' purpose is mostly a scientific one. 


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