NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will hunt for planets that have the potential to harbour alien life, is set to launch on April 16 from the US.
The satellite is undergoing final preparations in Florida, US. For final launch preparations, the spacecraft will be fuelled and encapsulated within the payload fairing of its SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“We expect TESS will discover a number of planets whose atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life, could be precisely measured by future observers,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator.
On March 15, the spacecraft passed a review that confirmed it was ready for launch.
TESS will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
With the help of a gravitational assist from the Moon, the spacecraft will settle into a 13.7-day orbit around Earth. Sixty days after launch, and following tests of its instruments, the satellite will begin its initial two-year mission.
Four wide-field cameras will give TESS a field-of-view that covers 85 per cent of our entire sky. Within this vast visual perspective, the sky has been divided into 26 sectors that TESS will observe one by one.
The first year of observations will map the 13 sectors encompassing the southern sky, and the second year will map the 13 sectors of the northern sky.
The spacecraft will be looking for a phenomenon known as a transit, where a planet passes in front of its star, causing a periodic and regular dip in the star’s brightness.
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft used the same method to spot more than 2,600 confirmed exoplanets, most of them orbiting faint stars 300 to 3,000 light-years away.
“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,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters.
“TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds whose properties can be probed by NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and other missions,” Hertz said.
TESS will concentrate on stars less than 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s targets.
The brightness of these target stars will allow researchers to use spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light, to determine a planet’s mass, density and atmospheric composition.
Water, and other key molecules, in its atmosphere can give us hints about a planets’ capacity to harbour life.
“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the US which manages the mission.
“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,” said Rinehart.
Through the TESS Guest Investigator Programme, the worldwide scientific community will be able to participate in investigations outside of TESS’s core mission, enhancing and maximising the science return from the mission in areas ranging from exoplanet characterisation to stellar astrophysics and solar system science.