I like nautical metaphors as applied to the stars, my favorite being the words attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French writer/aviator and author of poetic works about flight like Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), and a work familiar to most American students of French, Vol de nuit, published in English as Night Flight (1931). I think the Saint-Exupéry quote captures what it takes to contemplate far voyaging:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Image: Antoine de Saint-Exupery, whose work inspired, among many other things, my own decision to take up flying.

I had to track down the quote because the last time it appeared in these pages, a reader wrote to tell me he had never found it in Saint-Exupéry. I hadn’t either, which bothered me because I am a huge fan of the man’s work. It certainly sounded like him. So I did some digging and turned up a passage in Saint-Exupéry’s posthumously published Citadelle (1948) that comes close. The quote above is a much abbreviated paraphrase but does capture the spirit of the original (you’ll find a translation of the original at the end of this post).

Looking out over the ocean is much like looking out into the stars, triggering that same sense of immensity and, among some at least, the drive to explore. I get the same triggering effect by looking at images from spacecraft missions, like the views below from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which has now provided us with a ‘first light’ look at the southern sky.

Image: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) took this snapshot of the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) and the bright star R Doradus (left) with just a single detector of one of its cameras on Tuesday, Aug. 7. The frame is part of a swath of the southern sky TESS captured in its “first light” science image as part of its initial round of data collection. Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS.

So do images of the stars make us yearn for deep space as Saint-Exupéry’s passage makes us yearn for the sea? I suspect so, and it would explain how often we resort to the sea in describing the stars. This morning I can point to Paul Hertz, who is astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters, a man who likewise resorts to a maritime theme in describing what TESS will do:

“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study. This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”

That bounty should reveal numerous nearby targets for the investigation of the James Webb Space Telescope as well as later space- and ground-based instruments. The full four-camera image that is shown below was captured on August 7, and took in constellations from Capricornus to Pictor, and both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. This view of the southern sky includes more than a dozen stars already known to have transiting planets.

Image: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured this strip of stars and galaxies in the southern sky during one 30-minute period on Tuesday, Aug. 7. Created by combining the view from all four of its cameras, this is TESS’ “first light,” from the first observing sector that will be used for identifying planets around other stars. Notable features in this swath of the southern sky include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a globular cluster called NGC 104, also known as 47 Tucanae. The brightest stars in the image, Beta Gruis and R Doradus, saturated an entire column of camera detector pixels on the satellite’s second and fourth cameras. Credits: NASA/MIT/TESS.

Whereas the Kepler mission ‘stared’ at a single field of stars at distances up to 3,000 light years, TESS puts the same transit detection strategy to work on much closer targets, 30 to 300 light years away, and up to 100 times brighter. The spacecraft will monitor 26 sectors of the sky for 27 days each, ultimately covering 85 percent of the sky, with the first year of operations dedicated to southern stars before beginning the second year-long survey of the northern sky.

The science investigations will include those requested through the TESS Guest Investigator Program, which allows the scientific community at large to use the spacecraft for research.

“We were very pleased with the number of guest investigator proposals we received, and we competitively selected programs for a wide range of science investigations, from studying distant active galaxies to asteroids in our own solar system,” said Padi Boyd, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “And of course, lots of exciting exoplanet and star proposals as well. The science community are chomping at the bit to see the amazing data that TESS will produce and the exciting science discoveries for exoplanets and beyond.”

Here’s a square from the third camera; note the Small Magellanic Cloud just right of center.

Image: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured this square of stars and galaxies in the southern sky with its third camera during one 30-minute period on Tuesday, Aug. 7. Bright objects are labeled. Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS.

A sea of stars indeed, with the TESS targets bright enough for high-grade spectroscopic follow-up. All of this is coming together as part of the extension of our studies to the atmospheres of small, rocky worlds. Yesterday we looked at a paper from Anthony Del Genio et. al. on Proxima Centauri b. The Del Genio paper makes the point that “The population of potentially habitable rocky exoplanets in M star systems has now suddenly reached the point at which it will soon be possible to assess the demographics of this class of planet.”

Exoplanet demographics! We’ve come so far since the first detection of planets around a main sequence star back in 1995. TESS will be a huge part of extending our catalog.

And returning to the Saint-Exupéry passage with which I opened, here is a translation of the passage in La Citadelle that I found online.

One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea…

Good stuff, but I admit to liking the abbreviated version better. It has more punch.