April 15, 2018 9:00 am
Updated: April 18, 2018 10:04 pm

NASA gets set to launch its newest planet-hunter, TESS

WATCH: NASA's TESS planet-hunting satellite launches

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NASA will soon have a new set of eyes watching the cosmos — and this planet-hunter will be focusing on worlds much closer to our own.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (shortened as TESS) could launch as early as Monday evening aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

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Over the next two years, TESS will use highly sophisticated cameras to identify orbiting planets as they “transit” in front of their parent stars, causing a dip in the star’s brightness. It’s the same technique used by the Kepler space telescope, which has helped find thousands of planets so far.

The difference is that TESS will focus on the brightest stars — those closest to Earth.

WATCH: Here’s what you need to know about NASA’s TESS launch

Check out NASA’s rundown of the mission here:

What makes TESS different?

TESS is unique in a few ways. One is the scope of its planned observations, and another is how it will conduct them.

TESS’s eventual orbit — which it will settle into after a slingshot maneuver around the Moon — has been chosen to maximize its ability to capture a clear, unobstructed view of the stars around us.

The solar-powered satellite will complete one full turn around the Earth every 13.7 days, using the three-hour window when it’s closest to us to beam back data collected during the previous two weeks. No craft has ever occupied this particular orbit before.

A look at TESS’s planned orbit (in red) around Earth (centre) and the path it will take to get there (in green and yellow).

NASA

Public data releases will happen every four months, allowing people all over the world to help find and classify new planets.

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TESS’s four, 100-millimeter-wide cameras will capture about 85 per cent of the sky, NASA says, which is 350 times the area that Kepler first observed. Instead of keeping its eye on just one zone or quadrant, TESS will systematically capture everything around, below and above it.

The research team, based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is hoping to observe a grand total of 200,000 stars for signs of exoplanets.

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In a journal article published in 2015, the TESS team estimated that the satellite would “find more than a thousand planets smaller than Neptune, including dozens that are comparable in size to the Earth.”

Why does this matter?

The mission has been in the works for several years, and represents the next step in humanity’s attempts to identify planets that are both nearby (in stellar terms) and potentially capable of supporting life.

“TESS’s legacy will be a catalog of the nearest and brightest stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will comprise the most favorable targets for detailed investigations in the coming decades,” the research team explained in the 2015 journal article.

Basically, that means that the planets that seem most interesting will be given more attention by instruments on the ground and in the skies; like NASA’s US$8.8-billion James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2020. Combining all this data will help determine what the planets are made of, their masses and densities, and whether they might be capable of supporting life.

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Of course, even if these stellar neighbours turn out to be habitable, actually visiting them would require a whole new way of travelling between solar systems. A modern spacecraft speeding through space at 84,000 km/h would still take 54,400 years to reach Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our sun.

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