Science

Watch launch of TESS planet-hunting mission April 16

Watch launch of TESS planet-hunting mission April 16

The spacecraft is estimated about $337 million and it is of a washing machine-sized spacecraft. The scientists expect that thousands of these stars would host transiting planets that they hope to locate through images taken with the cameras of TESS.

TESS will survey the sky, looking for small dips in a distant star's light as a planet passes between the satellite and its star.

Kepler will be abandoned in the cosmos and will orbit around the sun being unable to ever come closer to Earth more than the distance between the Earth and the Moon and TESS will replace it in the search for exoplanets capable of hosting life.

That all changed with the launch of the Kepler space telescope in 2009. Mission managers estimate there will be on the order of tens of thousands of new planets discovered. Powerful cameras on TESS will monitor each section for at least 27 days at a time, looking at the brightest stars.

Kepler's field of view covered one 400th of the Milky Way and confirmed the presence of 1,284 new planets, whereas TESS is an ultra-wide-angle lens that will observe almost the entire visible sky, with a camera array that has four 16.4-megapixel imaging units, each covering a square of sky 24 degrees across, making for a tall "segment" of the sky like a long Tetris block.

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"One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an astronomer finds a planet in a star's habitable zone, will it be interesting from a biologist's point of view?" said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A lot of follow-up work will go into determining whether these candidates are truly planets, rather than binary stars, artifacts in the data or something else.

These planets will be some of our closest neighbours, orbiting stars we can actually see when we look up at the sky.

We now know that almost all stars have planets around them, and as our technology improves we keep finding more. The main objective will be to find the so-called Earth 2.0 - an exoplanet capable of supporting life.

"For me, just knowing they're there would be enough", Volosin said. The satellite will observe the Southern hemisphere in the first year and the Northern in the second.

"One of the problems that we had with Kepler is that it looked at this really small patch of the sky, so unless your telescope was in the right position with the right instrument there you won't see it". Space telescopes like TESS and Kepler are just the start for the hunt for planets that might have signs of life. The more light, the more data, and often the less noise - researchers will be able to tell more about stars that are observed, and if necessary dedicate other ground or space resources towards observing them.