SpaceX blasts off NASA's new planet-hunter, TESS

By Joey Roullette

By Joey Roullette

A NASA spacecraft launched Wednesday evening from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is expected to discover thousands more families of so-called exoplanets circling bright, nearby stars, some of which might have the ingredients needed to support life.

After a delay, SpaceX is winding up again to launch NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) today (April 18) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX has successfully brought NASA's new exoplanet-hunting telescope to high Earth orbit, from which, after one more burn, the satellite will be deployed.

Roughly the size of a refrigerator with solar-panel wings and four special cameras, TESS will take about 60 days to reach a highly elliptical orbit between Earth and the moon to begin its observations. In addition to expanding the search for other forms of life in the great beyond, TESS also underscores how recent advances in technology aid that search. Every star you see - plus hundreds of thousands, even millions more - will come under the intense stare of NASA's newest planet hunter.

"My great hope is that TESS will find new mysteries", said Dr. Stephen Rinehart, a project scientist for the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It will build on the work of the Kepler space telescope, which discovered more than 2,600 exoplanets in about 440 star systems during an extended decade-long mission.

Boiling atmospheres, roiling winds, dead shells of entities once vibrant - scientists have discovered some pretty wonderful exoplanets in the past few years. "TESS is basically the discoverer, it's going to find the really exciting planets that we can then follow up with powerful telescopes".

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These events are called transits, hence TESS' name.

SPACECRAFT: At 5 feet (1.5 meters), Tess is shorter than most adults and downright puny compared with most other spacecraft. Ricker said not knowing is what makes the mission so exciting. So astronomers want to focus on stars that are vastly brighter and closer to home - close enough for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to scrutinize the atmospheres of planets lurking in their sun's shadows.

Less than 10 minutes after launch, the rocket's first stage returned to an upright landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, marking SpaceX's 24th touchdown of a rocket booster.

Even the closest exoplanets found in our solar neighborhood will be light years away - too far for humans to visit.

Both use the same system of detecting planetary transits, or shadows cast as they pass in front of their star.

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