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NASA’s Planet-Hunting Satellite Begins The Search For Alien Worlds

Jul 30, 2018 01:00 AM EDT
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NASA's TESS Satellite
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, seen here in an artist's illustration, will enable NASA to identify exoplanets orbiting stars outside the solar system.


(Photo : NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

The hunt for alien worlds gets underway as NASA's much-awaited TESS spacecraft officially begins its science operations on Wednesday, July 25.

The planet hunter is expected to give astronomers more than a thousand new exoplanets to explore and endless of possibilities in further studies beyond the solar system.

TESS Begins Scanning The Stars

TESS, also known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, has begun scouring the stars just outside the solar system for signs of alien planets in orbit, NASA reports.

For the next two years, the satellite will be tracking the nearest, brightest stars and keeping a lookout for transits, which are periodic dips in the star's light. Transits can be caused by a planet passing between the star and Earth, which accounts for the temporary flicker in their shine.

"I'm thrilled that our new planet hunter mission is ready to start scouring our solar system's neighborhood for new worlds," Paul Hertz, director of the NASA Astrophysics division, explains in a statement. "Now that we know there are more planets than stars in our universe, I look forward to the strange, fantastic worlds we're bound to discover."

By monitoring transits in nearby stars, TESS is expected to identify thousands of previously undiscovered planets, some of which may even be supporting life.

TESS is scheduled to transmit the first set of data it collected in August 2018. It will continue to send new data every 13.5 days, once every orbit as it makes its closest approach to Earth. Researchers will then analyze TESS' collected information for signs of transits and potential exoplanets.

The Powerful New Planet Hunter

TESS was launched on April 18, and made a splash a month later with a breathtaking image of a star-studded cosmos. The photo, a sample image sent back to Earth as part of the spacecraft's testing period, shows 200,000 individual stars.

This new planet-hunting satellite will be trying to fill the large footsteps of NASA's previous hunter, the Kepler telescope, which logged in two missions and the discovery of 2,650 confirmed exoplanets.

However, Space.com notes that Kepler was only able to observe a limited patch of sky during its missions. In contrast, TESS is capable of scouring a much larger area, although it will focus on the 200,000 brightest stars from its orbit.

Around 1,600 new exoplanets are expected to be identified, a number of which are likely to be the subject of follow-up study by the controversial James Webb Space Telescope. While this telescope has been delayed over and over again — it's now pushed back to 2021 — it is projected to be extremely powerful and capable of studying exoplanets and their atmospheres in much greater detail.

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