The search for extraterrestrial life has shifted gears over the last five years or so, with the Kepler Space Telescope alone bringing thousands of potentially habitable Earth-sized planets into focus. Things are unlikely to slow down as NASA prepares to unleash a couple of powerful new exoplanet-hunting tools, starting with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which just landed at Kennedy Space Center ahead of its upcoming launch.
Originally planned to lift off last year, the TESS mission will place wide-field cameras into high-Earth orbit to search for small, rocky and icy worlds, particularly those resting in the "habitable zones" of their host stars.
It will do this using a transit method similar to Kepler, but thanks to more powerful cameras will study stars up to 100 times brighter. It will also cover an area of sky 400 times larger than Kepler and monitor more than 200,00 stars for transit events – where a star's brightness dips as a planet passes in front of it.
The satellite spent 2017 at the aerospace manufacturer Orbital ATK's facility in Virginia as engineers assembled and tested its components. It was then loaded onto a truck and delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center last week, where it is now being prepared for launch inside the center's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).
If everything runs smoothly, the satellite will launch from Cape Canaveral sometime in mid-April atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA expects it to find thousands of new exoplanets, which scientists will then be able to inspect more closely when the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) takes flight next year.
That particular instrument, which is expected to launch from French Guiana sometime in 2019, will play a massive role in the study of exoplanets, such as those making up the TRAPPIST-1 system discovered last year. Poised to take over from Hubble as NASA's premier orbiting telescope, the JWST spans the size of a tennis court and will be equipped with advanced tools to study the atmospheres of these distant worlds. These include temperature measurements, investigating the chemical compositions of atmospheres and other signs that indicate whether these planets could host forms of life.
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