The NASA satellite known as TESS is heading towards its proper orbit where it will begin its quest to find new planets and contribute to the search for alien life.

By Joe McDonough

Posted on April 19, 2018

TESS, or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, hitched a ride into space today atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and is en route to its orbit, which stretches all the way to the moon.

In a tweet following the successful launch, NASA said: “It will spend the next 60 days getting to its proper orbit where it will search for unknown worlds beyond our solar system”.

TESS will hunt for alien worlds around stars in our solar neighbourhood, with the aim of discovering planets that other missions can then study in detail.

The satellite will scan 85% of the skies for planets beyond the solar system, known as exoplanets, and can collect 27 gigabytes of data per day.

More than 200,000 of our brightest and closest stars will be targeted.

TESS principal investigator George Ricker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said TESS is expected to uncover “more than double” the number of exoplanets identified by NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

The Kepler mission discovered 2,650 confirmed exoplanets, which is approximately 70% of the known number beyond our solar system.

“TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study,” Ricker said during a pre-launch briefing.

“It’s going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler.”

Sara Seager, another MIT researcher who is working on the satellite, said TESS may enlighten us as to whether Earth has a twin planet out there.

“And so with the planets that TESS finds, we’re going to be able to use a different set of telescopes and then try to find out if any of them are indeed somewhat like Earth,” she said.

If TESS is able to find small planets that are not exposed to extreme temperatures because of their orbits, then NASA’s powerful observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, would be able to conduct a closer examination, scouring the planets for signs of life, like water vapor, oxygen, methane and carbon dioxide.

As Ricker says, “TESS will tell us where to look at and when to look.”

To find these hidden planets, TESS will use the same transit method that was used in the Kepler mission.

Basically, when a planet crosses in front of its star it causes a periodic change in the star’s brightness, and this is picked up by the satellite.

TESS is basically the size of a washing machine, and the huge undertaking is relatively inexpensive at $US337 million.

The far end of the satellite’s elongated orbit nears the moon’s orbit, and TESS should come within a few thousand kilometres of the lunar surface in mid-May.

It is another successful flight for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launched the world’s most powerful operational rocket in February.

The Falcon Heavy rocket launch has been hailed as a significant step towards Musk’s ultimate goal of colonising Mars.