Space

SpaceX successfully launches NASA's next-gen exoplanet-hunter

The TESS mission lifting off
The TESS mission lifting off
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TESS in its nose cone awaits mating with the Falcon 9 rocket
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TESS in its nose cone awaits mating with the Falcon 9 rocket
TESS in its protective shroud for shipping to Cape Canaveral
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TESS in its protective shroud for shipping to Cape Canaveral
Artist's concept of TESS
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Artist's concept of TESS
TESS undergoing ground checks
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TESS undergoing ground checks
TESS is designed to conduct a major survey for exoplanets
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TESS is designed to conduct a major survey for exoplanets
Falcon 9 ignition
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Falcon 9 ignition
The TESS mission lifting off
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The TESS mission lifting off

The hunt for planets beyond the solar system went up a gear today, as NASA launched its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Successor to the Kepler Space Telescope, TESS will survey more than 200,000 of the brightest stars in the neighborhood of our Sun in search for transiting exoplanets.

Previous to the Kepler mission, exoplanets were extremely rare finds with the first one only confirmed in 1992. Thanks to the unmanned Kepler telescope, over 2,300 have been confirmed with thousands more candidates awaiting study. However, Kepler is now on its last metaphorical legs. After the reaction wheels used to hold it steady began to fail, NASA engineers managed to keep it operating in a reduced capacity for an extended mission, but even that is now coming to a close.

Led by MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, TESS is a much more ambitious two-year mission that will look at a wider variety of brighter stars that are closer to the Earth. During its primary mission, it will look at over 200,000 stars in an area of the sky 400 times greater than that surveyed by Kepler, divided into 26 different sectors each measuring 24° by 96°. According to NASA, the spacecraft's cameras will study each sector for 27 days in divisions of two-minutes of arc, or about 1/15th the diameter of the Moon as seen from Earth.

Artist's concept of TESS
Artist's concept of TESS

Once on station, TESS will hunt for exoplanets using the transit method. That is, it will monitor the brightness of stars and measure any dips seen in their light curves. These dips can be due to a dark body like a planet passing in front of the star's disc, and by analyzing the curve scientists can deduce its size, orbit, mass, and composition. These stars will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those seen by the Kepler spacecraft and it is estimated that 300 Earth-like planets will be discovered during the primary mission. In addition, by focusing on closer, brighter stars, it will be much easier for earthbound telescopes to conduct follow-up studies.

Today's launch took place at 6:51 pm EDT under clear skies and went off without any major technical problems. The Falcon 9 reached its point of maximum stress one minute and 16 seconds into the launch with the main engine shutting down at the two-minute-29-second mark. The second stage separated three seconds later and fired two seconds after that. It then made two successful burns that placed TESS in a highly elliptical orbit at about 48 minutes into the flight.

TESS in its nose cone awaits mating with the Falcon 9 rocket
TESS in its nose cone awaits mating with the Falcon 9 rocket

Meanwhile, SpaceX's Falcon 9 first stage executed an autonomous burn and returned to Earth, making a controlled powered landing on the drone seabarge "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic Ocean. This marks the 24th Falcon 9 landing.

Today's launch was delayed from the initial Monday attempt due to issues with Guidance Navigation and Control systems in the Falcon 9. However, NASA reported that TESS remained in excellent health.

The video below is a recording of the live launch webcast.

Sources: NASA, SpaceX

TESS Mission

2 comments
BrianK56
That was a great launch, flight and landing, congrats to SpaceX. We will first have to master travel to the Moon and Mars since the other planets are out of our reach for right now, hopefully not for much longer.
Daishi
My view on traveling to planets outside our solar system is summed up by this photo https://imgur.com/CakLNHI.jpg That's what a 1.2 cm object does to armor at 1/50,000th of the speed of light. The next closest solar system is over 4 light years away and the next closest habitable planet could be 10 or more light years meaning it would take 500k years to reach traveling at the speed that 1.2 cm object demolished armor at. Short of invoking magic or science fiction a manned mission to another solar system in under thousands of years of travel is insurmountable.
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