The US space agency is about to launch a telescope that should find thousands of planets beyond our Solar System.
The two-year, $337 million TESS mission is created to build on the work of its predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered the bulk of some 3,700 exoplanets documented during the past 20 years and is running out of fuel. If planets are everywhere, then it is time for us to find the planets that are closest to us orbiting bright nearby stars, because these will be the touchstone system.
A private sector space transportation firm founded and run by Tesla's Elon Musk, SpaceX has conducted launches for NASA in the past as well.
Similar to the Kepler, TESS will be using a method of detection known as transit photometry, which looks for periodic, repetitive dips in the visible light from stars which may be caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of them. "It is going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler". The frequency of each faint flicker will indicate the planet's size and its distance from the star.
"We're expecting to find 2,000-3,000 planets that are certainly below the size of our Jupiter and a lot of them below the size of Neptune; so, the ones that have the potential for being terrestrial, for being rocky", said Jennifer Burt from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which leads the mission.
"TESS forms a bridge from what we have learned about exoplanets to date and where we are headed in the future", said Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at Nasa's Goddard Spaceflight Center. He is interested in the variations in the brightness of the stars that will be observed by Tess.
This highly-elliptical orbit will help maximize TESS's field of vision, making it possible for the satellite's four cameras to image up to 85 percent of the sky. "There are far more planets in the Milky Way than there are stars", says MIT astronomer George Ricker, the principal investigator for TESS.
"TESS is very much a trash-treasure sort of mission", said Natalia Guerrero, deputy manager for the TESS Objects of Interest team.
Sure enough, after an hour, the spacecraft restarted, re-orientated itself and sent a message back to Earth that it was alive and well.