New NASA Planet-Hunter Targets April Launch

posted by Alan McBride - 

A new NASA spacecraft that will search for planets outside of our solar system is scheduled for a launch from Florida in April.

The spacecraft, called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is targeted to launch no earlier than 6:32 p.m. Eastern Time April 16.

According to a NASA news release, TESS will ride into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. 

Scientists say the mission will find planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, that periodically block part of the light from their host stars as they pass by, or transit.

NASA says TESS boasts  a field of view almost 400 times larger than that of the agency’s Kepler mission, a planet-hunter that has become a scientific workhorse of near legendary status.

According to the NASA mission summary, TESS will search for thousands of exoplanets in orbit around the brightest and nearest stars outside our solar system during a two-year period of surveying our solar neighborhood. 

In its mission to identify new worlds, scientists say the spacecraft will monitor more than 200,000 stars, looking for a telltale sign: a decrease in a star’s brightness that occurs when an orbiting planet transits between its star and an observing spacecraft, temporarily blocking the star’s light. 

The decrease in brightness has been used by other observatories to determine whether a planet is crossing, or transiting, the face of its parent star. 

The changes in stellar brightness, carefully measured, have been used to calculate orbits and masses of exoplanets. 

This method of planet-hunting, though it has grown more sophisticated and precise, still has limits.

A planet must be in an orbit that allows an observer to see it pass in front of its parent star. 

Planets in orbital planes that are, say, perpendicular to the space-based observatory's view are not detectable through a transiting survey.

Put another way, if we are to detect these exoplanets, they have to be in the kind of orbit where an Earthly observer can see them pass in front of their star.

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