NASA's Planet Hunting Satellite 'TESS' Sends Back Its First Photo From Space
The launch went successfully, and TESS remained quiet after that because it's still traveling toward its final, distant orbit. And it's close, having just flown around the Moon to launch itself farther out into the solar system - during that swing, it also took its first official photo of the cosmos before its official planet hunting mission starts.
There's likely many exoplanets in this photo, but TESS won't be scanning it more thoroughly until NASA's finished setting it up. See the test photo below, taken by one of TESS' four cameras during a two second exposure:
On a mission to find thousands of new planets, @NASA_TESS snapped this test image the southern constellation Centaurus, revealing more than 200,000 stars . Discover how we will scan even larger swaths of the sky: https://t.co/FtPh9mldak pic.twitter.com/ceWO7swzzi— NASA (@NASA) May 18, 2018
It's nearly impossible to see if you don't know what to look for, but this photo is centered around the large constellation Centaurus, with the star Beta Centauri shining in the lower left part of the photo and a small chunk of the Coalsack Nebula in the upper right. That's especially difficult to see because (like it's namesake) the nebula is very dark, but it does give you an idea of where in the night sky this is.
NASA doesn't refer to this photo as "science quality" just because it is a little vague for a space photo, and pretty low quality compared to anything from the Hubble Space Telescope. Once TESS swings into its final orbit at the end of the month, it's expected to start taking some more impressive photos starting in June 2018.
And its frame of reference will be much larger than what's covered by this photo. This photo contains about 200,000 stars and came from just one quick snap of one photo aboard TESS; once it's making full use of its four wide cameras to scan the entirety of the night sky, it'll be looking at 400 times as many stars for signs of exoplanets in their orbit.
So how does it find exoplanets around distant stars? Because they're so tiny and naturally overshadowed by the giant glowing stars they orbit around, exoplanets can be tough to find. So TESS is scanning the night sky for "transit events", which are tiny dips in a star's brightness which suggest a planet is passing in front of it.
After finding a suspected transit event, astronomers can take a closer look to verify that this tiny blip is a planet (although they sometimes jump to conclusions too quickly), and we can learn more about the eccentric balls of rock and gas giants that float around other solar systems.
Soon, we'll almost certainly find at least one interesting and possibly even Earth-like planet in this photo. But for now, just take it as a cool space photo showing that a fancy new space observatory is working properly.