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TESS Mission Fails to Make the Cut

NASA has made its choices, and TESS is not one of them. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite would have used six telescopes to observe the brightest stars in the sky, a remarkable 2.5 million of them, hoping to find more than 1,000 transiting planets ranging in size from Jupiter-mass down to rocky worlds like our own. An entrant in the agency’s Small Explorer program, TESS could have accelerated the time-frame for discovering another habitable world, assuming all went well.

Not that we don’t have Kepler at work on 100,000 distant stars, looking for transits that can give us some solid statistical knowledge of how often terrestrial (and other) planets occur. And, of course, the CoRoT mission is actively in the hunt. But TESS would have complemented both, looking at a wide variety of stars, many of which would have been M-dwarfs. Not long ago I referred to a Greg Laughlin post that noted a 98 percent probability that TESS would locate a potentially habitable transiting planet orbiting a red dwarf within 50 parsecs of the Earth.

Were that the case, the results could have been handed over to the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch near the end of the putative TESS mission, for further investigation. JWST, so the thinking goes, could then take a spectrum and tell us something about conditions in that planet’s atmosphere. Retrieving data from the atmospheres of such planets is crucial to astrobiology and we’ll get it done one day, but perhaps not as soon as we hoped.

Getting a mission into space is no easy matter in the best of times (see Alan Boss’ The Crowded Universe for vivid proof of this). Consider that the two Small Explorer (SMEX) finalists were chosen from an original 32 submitted in January of 2008. The SMEX missions are capped at $105 million each, excluding the launch vehicle. That cost would depend on the vehicle — the last time I looked, an Atlas V would command $130 million. We’re talking relatively small investment for a solid scientific return, even if that return doesn’t include exoplanetary results on this round.

One of the two proposals now to be developed into full missions is the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, which will use a solar telescope and spectrograph to look at the Sun’s chromosphere. The other is the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism SMEX mission, which will measure the polarization of X-rays emitted by neutron stars and stellar-mass black holes, as well as the massive black holes found at the centers of galaxies.

Given that one of NASA’s stated aims with the SMEX program is “…to raise public awareness of NASA’s space science missions through educational and public outreach activities” (see this news release), the agency may have missed an opportunity with TESS. We’re close to the detection, through radial velocity or transit studies, of a terrestrial planet around another star. That’s going to put the study of that planet’s atmosphere for life signs high on everyone’s agenda, including the public’s. From the PR perspective, TESS was a gold-plated winner.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James M. Essig June 22, 2009, 9:32

    Hi Paul;

    All I can say about the dropping of the TESS mission is “bummer!”. This would have been very near term affordable science at its best.

    However, with the potential discovery of Earth like habitable planets within 50 parsecs with requesite hardware over the comming years and the inspiration of the public on the whole idea, I have high hopes that missions with simmilar objectives will be launched in relatively short order. There is just too much to gain not to launch such missions.

  • Mike June 22, 2009, 9:56

    Would it be feasible to re-apply and launch this mission a few years later?
    JWST should be operating for at least 5 years after it’s 2014 launch so it can still do follow up on TESS discoveries even if the TESS mission is delayed.
    What I’d like to know is TESS cancelled or just delayed?
    Perhaps someone who understands the funding process for NASA’s
    small explorer program could offer some comments on this.
    This is very disappointing news.


  • djlactin June 22, 2009, 11:49

    too much overlap

  • andy June 22, 2009, 14:03

    Not as big a blow as it would have been if CoRoT and Kepler weren’t going.

  • ljk June 22, 2009, 14:23

    I wonder if Europe or one of the Asian space powers will pick it up?

  • philw1776 June 22, 2009, 14:34

    Bummer, but optimisticly speaking perhaps a more technologically advanced TESS style mission might be proposed once Kepler results are in, investigators can digest the results and plan specific missions to answer the new now unknown questions raised by Kepler and COROT data.

    Ah, were I an internet billionaire instead of a retired internet engineer I’d fund a planet discovery mission. What an immortal opportunity to name planets.

  • Tom June 22, 2009, 15:23

    CoRoT can’t see terrestrial planets because of their systematics and raw photon noise, and Kepler is going to make detections on stars with V=13 or dimmer! That pretty much puts the kabosh on any sort of meaningful follow-up to the Kepler detections.

    TESS would have solved both these problems.

  • Michael Antoniewicz II June 22, 2009, 16:01

    What about taking the proposal private?
    The Keck Foundation funded the Keck 1 telescope on the order of $100 Million and less then a decade later funded a duplicate Keck 2 (cheaper since all the bugs in the design and manufacture were already worked out).
    ~$105 Million over 5 years to build, launch, and 2 yrs of opperations;
    ~$130 Million for an Atlas V launch over 3 yrs to the launch date;
    Or, shift to a Falcon 9 launcher for less: http://www.spacex.com/falcon9.php and go for the savings or shift it to extended opperations if the satilittes are still working.
    So, who knows a few Foundations that can individually or in combanation cough up ~$235 Million over 5+ years? ;)

  • kurt9 June 22, 2009, 22:00

    I think we’re all in waiting mode to see what Kepler turns up. In the unlikely event that Kepler fails to find many Earth-like planets, further projects will be canceled. If Kepler finds lots of Earth-like planets, it will be easier to ask for financing for follow on projects. Also, the economy will be somewhat better by ’12.

  • Administrator June 23, 2009, 8:12

    Exactly so, kurt9. A null result from Kepler, which would be statistically significant, would be a devastating blow to future exoplanet projects. Let’s hope Kepler finds interesting planets galore, as I suspect it will.

  • daniel June 23, 2009, 14:43

    since the last time that NASA send man the to moon in 1972,NASA don´t know doing science and human exploration business,for call the public attention in space science and tecnology…

    The TESS mission would be a great mission that maybe would discovery a earth-like planets around a M dwarf star habitable zones,and now i don´t think that we go have so early a chance of at same have a Mission like TESS, and a follow up Mission for search for a pontetial astrobiological activety of the transit M dwarf planet atmophere like JWST , at same time….

    i´m very disappoint with the NASA on the last years especiality in science mission and human exploration and USA govemanent funds to NASA

    NASA once again show that don´t doing bussines and manage the govenament money for atract the public interest for science exploration…

    the public are interest in planets around other stars and life on this planet FIRST! and Black holes after…

  • ljk July 12, 2009, 12:15

    Observational Window Functions in Planet Transit Surveys

    Authors: Kaspar von Braun, Stephen R. Kane, David R. Ciardi (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute / California Institute of Technology)

    (Submitted on 9 Jul 2009)

    Abstract: The probability that an existing planetary transit is detectable in one’s data is sensitively dependent upon the window function of the observations. We quantitatively characterize and provide visualizations of the dependence of this probability as a function of orbital period upon several observing strategy and astrophysical parameters, such as length of observing run, observing cadence, length of night, transit duration and depth, and the minimum number of sampled transits. The ability to detect a transit is directly related to the intrinsic noise of the observations.

    In our simulations of observational window functions, we explicitly address non-correlated (gaussian or white) noise and correlated (red) noise and discuss how these two noise components affect transit detectability in fundamentally different manners, especially for long periods and/or small transit depths.

    We furthermore discuss the consequence of competing effects on transit detectability, elaborate on measures of observing strategies, and examine the projected efficiency of different transit survey scenarios with respect to certain regions of parameter space.

    Comments: 16 pages, 11 figures, 8 tables; accepted for publication in ApJ

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    Cite as: arXiv:0907.1614v1 [astro-ph.EP]

    Submission history

    From: Kaspar von Braun [view email]

    [v1] Thu, 9 Jul 2009 17:05:49 GMT (277kb)


  • andy September 30, 2011, 12:21