NASA Finally Launches Their Planet-Hunting TESS Spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket

Wednesday, 18 April 2018 - 7:46PM
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NASA
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Wednesday, 18 April 2018 - 7:46PM
NASA Finally Launches Their Planet-Hunting TESS Spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket
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SpaceX
The search for exoplanets, the fancy name for planets in other solar systems than our own, is about to get a lot more interesting. 

It took a couple attempts, but NASA has officially launched their Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (called "TESS" for short) into orbit on the back of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA and SpaceX have been gradually turning into competitors - at least when it comes to Mars - but they still frequently collaborate like this.

Now that TESS is finally in an elliptical orbit around Earth (where it will extend past the Moon at its farthest points), it can begin its job of hunting for signs of exoplanets. Using four wide-field cameras, it will be scanning about 200,000 different stars for "transit events," which are the primary way we discover distant, tiny planets that are nearly impossible to see with their bright stars blocking them out.



A transit is a momentary dip in a star's brightness, which implies something planet-sized has just passed in front of it. Once TESS discovers one of these, that gives the go-ahead to NASA to take a closer look, eventually giving the exoplanet a name and looking more into its composition and, most importantly, if it could be similar to Earth.

We've had some success this way, finding an exoplanet now called Proxima b orbiting around our neighboring star Proxima Centauri, as well as seemingly Earth-like planets in the more distant TRAPPIST-1 system. The more we find, the better idea we'll have of how planets typically form, and how common a planet like our pale blue dot can be. Until recently, we were limited to our own solar system in our planet studies.  







TESS was originally scheduled to launch earlier this week, but the launch was abruptly postponed just an hour beforehand, with the Falcon 9 already long since set up at Cape Canaveral. NASA and SpaceX only stated that they wanted to run some extra analysis on the spacecraft's navigation systems, but that TESS was otherwise healthy.

And it sounds like it was minor, because TESS is now in the sky. Let's hope NASA's other potential exoplanet hunter, the James Webb Space Telescope, has an easier time as it faces more and more delays.
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