On Wednesday, April 18th, NASA is launching a new satellite. So what? What's so special about this one?
No, this one isn't collecting weather data--it's going to be looking for planets beyond our solar system.
Now, it's true that satellites have done this before. Take NASA's Kepler craft, for example. It's currently orbiting the Sun in search of Earth-sized exoplanets (planets beyond the Solar System), but it's slated to run out of fuel soon. While Kepler has brought us important data (such as the stunning fact that there may be as many as 40 billion planets in the universe with sizes and orbits similar to Earth), it's about time for its replacement.
Enter TESS. According to Stephen Rinehart, project scientist for TESS, this satellite's mission will be a bit more focused than Kepler's. He told The Verge, “Kepler was all about doing a census: How common are planets in general? What is the size distribution of planets like? Are Earth-sized planets common? TESS is really optimized for knocking on doors in the neighborhood and saying, ‘Hi, how are you? What is this planet actually like?’”
Specifically, TESS will be looking for planets orbiting stars closer to our solar system, just tens of light-years away from Earth in some cases.
How will TESS do it? It will use methods similar to Kepler, chiefly by measuring the amount a star dims whenever a planet gets in front of it. By measuring the amount of fluctuation in brightness the star experiences during the planet's orbit, scientists can estimate the planet's composition and size. And because TESS will be inspecting bright stars closer to us, these measurements will be much easier to take because of the reduced amount of time it takes to capture the light of the star.
What exactly is TESS looking for, though, outside of exoplanets that are nearby? Astronomers are hoping that it will locate Earth-sized planets with Earth-like orbits. The central question that scientists are trying to answer is if there are other planets out there with similar conditions to Earth--especially, does it have liquid water? A number of factors play into the answer to this question beyond the size of the planet and its orbit, and thus, this question cannot be definitively answered by TESS's observations.
However, with upcoming telescopes, NASA will be able to observe these distant planets' atmospheres and more accurately predict the existence of liquid water on their surfaces. But TESS is a major stepping stone in that direction and will help to narrow the number of planets that researchers need to check out.
The best part is you can watch SpaceX launch TESS into orbit. Liftoff was scheduled for today but has been postponed to Wednesday at 6:51 P.M. Eastern (which is 5:51 P.M. Central). You can catch the livestream here.
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I'm a sci-fi/fantasy lover & writer who especially likes talking about Star Wars and futuristic tech. I like finding new things & finding the beauty in old things, especially in my "Everyday Snippets" series. I hope you'll join me on my blog and unleash your imagination!