NASA officials are preparing to launch the planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Launching in 2017-2018, TESS will look for planets near the brightest stars just outside our solar system using the “transit technique”.
When a planet passes between Earth and its parent star, it obstructs some of the star’s light. Like many other planet-hunting efforts, TESS will look for these telltale dips – or transits – in brightness, which can expose the planet’s presence and give scientists critical details.
TESS will be able to discover sizes and orbit lengths of the exoplanets it recognizes. These two data points are essential to understanding if a planet can support life. Almost all other planet data will come from follow up observations, by both ground- and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launching in 2018.
Finding Exoplanets Near the Earth
While NASA’s Kepler mission looked for exoplanets thousands to tens of thousands of light-years away, TESS will hunt for exoplanets hundreds of light-years or less in all directions around our solar system.
TESS will survey the majority of the sky by breaking it into 26 segments referred to as tiles. The spacecraft’s potent cameras will search continually at each tile for just more than 27 days, gauging visible light from the brightest stars every two minutes. TESS examine at stars considered to be at the twelfth apparent magnitude and greater, with the greater the apparent magnitude, the fainter the star. Most skywatchers can see stars at the sixth magnitude in a clear night sky.
One of the project’s goals is to locate Earth- and super-Earth-sized planets. These are challenging to discover due to their small size, but TESS will be focusing on smaller stars, which should make finding these small planets much easier. This is due to the fact that the fraction of the host star’s light that a planet obstructs is relative to the planet’s size.
Kepler searched for life far into the universe, but TESS will search closer to home. (Credit: NASA)
While the search for exoplanets is the main goal of the mission, TESS will also examine of other astrophysical items through the Guest Investigator (GI) Program. Because TESS is performing a near all-sky survey, it has the capacity to perform interesting research on various kinds of astronomical targets.
“The goal of the GI Program is to maximize the amount of science that comes out of TESS,” said Padi Boyd, director of the Guest Investigator Program Office at NASA.
According to Boyd, TESS could detect flaring young stars, binary star pairs, nearby supernovae and potentially supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.
“We hope the broader science community will come up with many unique science ideas for TESS, and we hope to encourage broad participation from the larger community,” she said.
Image credit: NASA Goddard
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