TESS’s planet hunt officially begins

The number of planets we know about is set to explode

Photo: NASA

NASA's newest planet-hunting satellite officially began its two-year science mission last Wednesday after 12 years of planning. Short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS even started gathering science data already and it will transit its first observations to Earth in August, thereafter periodically every 13.5 days, mission team members said in a statement.

"I'm thrilled that our planet hunter is ready to start combing the backyard of our solar system for new worlds," Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics division, said in the statement on Friday. "With possibly more planets than stars in our universe, I look forward to the strange, fantastic worlds we're bound to discover."

TESS circles the Earth in an elliptical orbit every 13.65 days - twice as fast as the moon and is NASA’s latest satellite to hunt for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. Equipped with four 16.8-megapixel science cameras, TESS will be able to look at an area of the sky 400 times larger than Kepler and monitor the nearest and brightest stars for periodic dips in their light. These events, called transits, suggest that a planet may be passing in front of its star. Using this method, TESS is expected to find tens of thousands of planets.

Once the planets have been found by the satellite, astronomers hope the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to figure out whether they have atmospheres capable of supporting life. James Webb however has been in the planning since the mid-1990s, but isn't expected to launch until 2021 at the earliest.

TESS launched on April 18 into orbit around Earth and then underwent a period of testing to ensure the instrument was ready to use. It sent its first photograph, a test image, down to its handlers in May. That image showed 200,000 individual stars, many of which could be accompanied by at least one planet.

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