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NASA is Launching its New Planet Hunter

April 12, 2018
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NASA is Launching its New Planet Hunter

NASA is launching their new planet hunter on Monday (April 16). The new satellite will stare out at the cosmos searching for new extraterrestrial planets.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will spot exoplanets via the “transit” method. So, whenever a planet transits, it slightly dims the light of its parent star enough for an orbiting telescope to measure. NASA’s legendary Kepler space telescope also uses this strategy.

However, there’s a difference between the two planet hunters. For example, Kepler finds faraway exoplanets at least several hundred light-years from Earth. Meanwhile, TESS will focus on planets close enough to be investigated in depth by other instruments — especially NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Orbit of TESS

So, NASA is planning to launch the probe at 6:32 PM ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9.

TESS will hunt for exoplanets from a highly elliptical orbit that no other spacecraft has ever occupied. According to a new NASA video, the new satellite will gradually expand its orbit until it flies close enough to the moon to receive a gravitational assist.

“This slingshot will move it into a stable orbit that is tipped at about 40 degrees from the moon’s orbital plane,” the video’s narrator explains.

TESS will end up zipping around our planet once every 13.7 days.

So, if all goes well, the spacecraft should be collecting data as early as June, which is just around the time that Kepler starts to go offline.

NASA prepared TESS to do its job for two years, but engineers are already thinking about how to expand its mission.

The farthest point, or apogee, will be 232,000 miles (373,000 kilometers) from Earth. Thus, allowing the spacecraft to survey part of the sky without interference from the moon or our planet. The closest point in the orbit, or perigee, will be 67,000 miles (108,000 km), which is about three times the altitude of geosynchronous satellites. So, TESS will beam back information after every close encounter with Earth.

Observation of TESS

In the first year, the new satellite will be observing the celestial Southern Hemisphere. Thus, swinging between different locations in the sky every 27 days so that it always points away from the sun. Shortly after, TESS will observe the entire Northern Hemisphere in 27-day slices during the spacecraft’s second year.

So, Where Can I Watch the Air Launch of Next Planet-Hunting Mission?

NASA is streaming the whole thing on their website and here is the TV coverage as follows:

Sunday, April 15

11 a.m. – NASA Social Mission Overview

  • Martin Still, TESS program scientist at NASA Headquarters
  • Tom Barclay, TESS scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Jenn Burt, Torres postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Zach Berta-Thompson, assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Natalia Guerrero, TESS researcher at MIT
  • Robert Lockwood, TESS spacecraft program manager with Orbital ATK
  • Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX
  • Jessie Christiansen, staff scientist with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech
  • Elisa Quintana, TESS scientist at Goddard

1 p.m. – Prelaunch news conference

  • Sandra Connelly, deputy associate administrator of programs for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate
  • Omar Baez, launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program
  • Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at Goddard
  • Mike McAleenan, weather officer with the U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron
  • Robert Lockwood
  • Hans Koenigsmann

3 p.m. – Science news conference

  • Paul Hertz, Astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters
  • George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at MIT
  • Padi Boyd, TESS Guest Investigator Program lead at Goddard
  • Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at Goddard
  • Diana Dragomir, postdoctoral fellow at MIT

Monday, April 16

10 a.m. – NASA EDGE: TESS

  • This half-hour live show will discuss the TESS spacecraft, the science of searching for planets outside our solar system, and the launch from Cape Canaveral.

6 p.m. – Launch coverage begins

6:32 p.m. – Launch

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the mission. Principal investigator George Ricker, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be leading TESS.

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Thumbnail image: An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Credit: Chris Meaney/NASA Goddard.

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