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“I always get the shakes before a drop,” wrote Robert Heinlein, the words being those of protagonist Johnny Rico in his novel Starship Troopers. I thought of them again this morning because while I don’t tend to get the ‘shakes,’ I do tend to get nervous before a major launch, and that’s what we have today. The image below comes from the TESS mission Twitter account @NASA_TESS (https://twitter.com/NASA_TESS) in a shot just posted as I write. Launch is scheduled for 1832 Eastern time (2332 UTC) and can be seen here.

The launch vehicle is a SpaceX Falcon 9, lifting off from Cape Canaveral. Here’s a bit of NASA’s latest statement:

TESS is NASA’s next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets, including those that could support life. The mission is expected to catalog thousands of planet candidates and vastly increase the current number of known exoplanets. TESS will find the most promising exoplanets orbiting relatively nearby stars, giving future researchers a rich set of new targets for more comprehensive follow-up studies, including the potential to assess their capacity to harbor life.

All true, of course, but we should dwell on the fact that while the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will use the same transit method for exoplanet detection that Kepler used to such effect, the differences are instructive. Kepler looked at a fixed field of view from which to extract a statistical sample of the exoplanet population, one we could use to understand how common various kinds of worlds are in the galaxy. TESS now takes a look at bright, relatively nearby stars, using its four 16.4-megapixel imaging units to survey 85 percent of the visible sky.

I like what TESS project scientist Stephen Rinehart (NASA GSFC — GSFC manages the mission) has to say:

“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study. We’re going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

That’s not hyperbole. By concentrating on stars less than 300 light years away, 30 to 100 times brighter than the Kepler target stars, researchers will be able to study planetary atmospheres using spectroscopy to learn things about mass, density and chemistry that go beyond what Kepler could tell us. Moreover, the TESS Guest Investigator Program will allow the scientific community around the world to take advantage of data outside the core TESS mission.

Can we expect the unexpected from TESS? I think so. Each new step in exoplanet discovery has shown us how much we have to learn. Now we’re looking at targets that may eventually allow us to search for biosignatures, where the findings are sure to be controversial. Just beginning that phase of exoplanet investigation is cause for celebration. Go TESS!

Image: Illustration of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star. TESS will identify thousands of potential new planets for further study and observation. Credit: NASA/GSFC.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ashley Baldwin April 16, 2018, 14:27

    I have to admit to pre lunch nerves too. The last launch of the Falcon FT EELV too.

    Almost a decade in the making TESS is perfectly timed to pick up the exoplanet baton from Kepler. Two years primary mission but hopefully, reaction wheels et al allowing , many more as part of a long follow up observation campaign . Its robust Orbital ATK Leostar 2 satellite bus has a minimum life expectancy of 5 years . This has already worked for 9 years on the GALEX telescope and for 6 years on NUSTAR which is still going strong.

    Thunderbirds are go !!

  • Roger April 16, 2018, 17:57

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s newest planet-hunting spacecraft will have to wait a bit longer to get aloft.
    The launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) — which was scheduled to take place this evening (April 16) here from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — has been delayed by at least 48 hours due to an issue with the spacecraft’s rocket ride, a SpaceX Falcon 9.
    “Standing down today to conduct additional GNC analysis, and teams are now working towards a targeted launch of @NASA_TESS on Wednesday, April 18,” SpaceX representatives wrote on Twitter this afternoon. (“GNC” stands for “guidance, navigation and control.”)

  • Michael Fidler April 16, 2018, 19:01

    Looks like TESS delayed until Wednesday, guidance issues.

    Very good news for ground based observations:

    Powerful new camera developed to directly image exoplanets.

    It is the first 10,000-pixel integral field spectrograph designed to overcome the limitations of traditional semiconductor detectors,” UC Santa Barbara said in a release. “It employs Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors that, in conjunction with a large telescope and an adaptive optics system, enable direct imaging of planets around nearby stars.”

    The DARKNESS camera can take thousands of images per second without the “read noise” and other factors that affect more traditional cameras. It also can determine the wavelength and arrival time of every photon striking its detector.

    “This technology will lower the contrast floor so that we can detect fainter planets,” Mazin said in the UC Santa Barbara release. “Mazin explained. “We hope to approach the photon noise limit … allowing us to see planets 100 million times fainter than the star. At those contrast levels, we can see some planets in reflected light, which opens up a whole new domain of planets to explore.



  • ljk April 17, 2018, 8:53

    The next era in exoplanet searches

    As NASA’s Kepler mission nears its end, another exoplanet hunter is ready for launch this week. Jeff Foust reports on how the TESS mission will carry on the search for exoplanets, particularly those relatively close to Earth.

    Monday, April 16, 2018


  • ljk April 17, 2018, 9:19

    Launch of exoplanet-hunting TESS satellite delayed to Wednesday

    by Derek Richardson

    April 16, 2018

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The launch of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Spacecraft (TESS) has been postponed by at least 48 hours, according to SpaceX. The satellite had been scheduled to launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32 p.m. EDT (22:23 GMT) April 16, 2018.

    “Standing down today to conduct additional GNC analysis, and teams are now working towards a targeted launch of @NASA_TESS on Wednesday, April 18,” SpaceX tweeted in a statement.

    GNC stands for guidance, navigation and control and SpaceX did not say whether this postponement stems from a potential hardware failure, or if the company is just being extra vigilant. In a statement from NASA, the space agency said the TESS spacecraft is: “in excellent health, and remains ready for launch.”

    Should SpaceX and NASA attempt to launch TESS on Wednesday, April 18, the targeted time for liftoff is expected to be 6:51 p.m. EDT (22:51 GMT). The Falcon 9 will fly out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.

    When the mission does get underway, TESS will survey 85 percent of the sky for two years to hunt for exoplanets within about 300 light-years from Earth. After the Falcon 9’s second stage delivers the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit around Earth, the spacecraft will use onboard thrusters, and a gravity assist from the Moon, to position itself into a special 2:1 lunar resonance orbit high above Earth. This means the observatory will orbit the planet twice for every time the Moon orbits once.