Science

NASA's alien-hunting TESS is about to become your new favorite mission

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Artist’s illustration of TESS in space.
Image: NASA/GSFC

On April 16, NASA’s latest and greatest mission is set to launch to space. 

The new space telescope is named TESS — short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — and it has a pretty awesome job. 

TESS is going on a hunt for alien planets. 

The new mission, which is more than 10 years in the making, could mark our first step toward discovering another planet outside of our solar system that harbors life.

“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist, said in a statement.

TESS on Earth.

TESS on Earth.

Image: NASA

“We’re going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Unlike other exoplanet-hunting spacecraft, TESS is perfectly equipped to locate Earth-sized planets circling stars in the “habitable zone” — the part of a star’s orbit where liquid water could be sustained on a planet’s surface. 

If a planet the size of Earth is in a star’s habitable zone, it’s at least theoretically possible that the planet could sustain life. 

TESS is designed to hunt for these worlds around bright, relatively nearby stars, according to NASA.

The satellite will spend about two years surveying the sky for signs of planets ranging in size from about Jupiter to Earth.

“It’s going to help us answer a really important question, and that is is, ‘Which of our nearest stellar neighbors has planets?” Elisa Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, said in a video about the mission.

The satellite will find these worlds by searching for small dips in the brightness of a star that are created when a planet passes between — or transits — its host star and the telescope. Those transits allow scientists to figure out the size of a planet, learn more about its atmosphere, and even characterize its orbit.

TESS will help build upon the legacy of the Kepler Space Telescope, another exoplanet-hunting satellite using the same transit method that’s still in space today.

The Kepler changed our understanding of the galaxy by spotting 2,600 confirmed exoplanets orbiting stars up to 3,000 light-years away, NASA said. 

“We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars,” Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director, said in the statement. 

While Kepler’s main mission was to stare deeply into one part of the sky, keeping an eye out for worlds circling distant stars, TESS will survey a large part of the sky, with a particular focus on nearby, bright stars.

Data gathered by TESS will also be used to help with the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) mission, when it hopefully launches to space in 2020.

The JWST, which is known as the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor, will be able to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets, figuring out if the worlds could be habitable. 

“We plan to followup atmospheres with JWST and we have the capability to find water vapor and signs of life by way of gases that don’t belong that might be attributed to life,” MIT exoplanet hunter Sara Seager said via email.

TESS is a particularly exciting moment for exoplanet scientists today, but hopefully the public will want to get involved as well. 

“Planet finding never gets old,” Seager said. “I hope the public will joyfully share in discoveries.”

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