Starry, starry flight... Nasa’s space­craft prowls for plan­ets

Nelson Mail - - CATALYST -

Look up at the sky tonight. Ev­ery star you see – plus hun­dreds of thou­sands, even mil­lions more – will come un­der the in­tense stare of Nasa’s new­est planet hunter.

Set to lift off early next week, the Tess space­craft will prowl for plan­ets around the clos­est, bright­est stars. These new­found worlds even­tu­ally will be­come prime tar­gets for fu­ture tele­scopes look­ing to tease out any signs of life.

It will be the most ex­ten­sive sur­vey of its kind from or­bit, with Tess, a ga­lac­tic scout, comb­ing the neigh­bour­hood as never be­fore.

‘‘We’re go­ing to look at ev­ery sin­gle one of those stars,’’ said the mis­sion’s chief sci­en­tist Ge­orge Ricker of Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Sci­en­tists ex­pect Tess to find thou­sands of ex­o­plan­ets – the term for plan­ets out­side our so­lar sys­tem.

‘‘All as­tronomers for cen­turies to come are re­ally go­ing to fo­cus on these ob­jects,’’ Ricker said. ‘‘This is re­ally a mis­sion for the ages.’’

Nasa’s as­tro­physics di­rec­tor, Paul Hertz, said mis­sions like Tess will help an­swer whether we’re alone – or just lucky enough to have ‘‘the best prime real es­tate in the galaxy’’.

Tess – short for Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite – is the heir ap­par­ent to the wildly suc­cess­ful Ke­pler Space Tele­scope, the pi­o­neer of plan­e­tary cen­sus. Ke­pler’s fuel tank is run­ning pre­car­i­ously low af­ter nine years of flight, and Nasa ex­pects it to shut down within sev­eral months.

Still on the look­out from on high, Ke­pler alone has dis­cov­ered more than 2600 con­firmed ex­o­plan­ets. Even more can­di­dates await con­fir­ma­tion.

The ex­o­planet count, from all ob­ser­va­to­ries in space and on Earth over the past cou­ple of decades, stands at more than 3700 con­firmed, with 4500 on the strong con­tender list.

About 50 are be­lieved to be po­ten­tially hab­it­able. They have the right size and the right or­bit of their star to sup­port sur­face wa­ter and, at least the­o­ret­i­cally, to sup­port life. These are called the Goldilocks ex­o­plan­ets.

Most of the Ke­pler-iden­ti­fied plan­ets are so far away that it would take mon­ster-size tele­scopes to ex­am­ine them more. 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 scru­ti­nise the at­mos­pheres of plan­ets lurk­ing in their sun’s shad­ows.

Pow­er­ful ground tele­scopes also will join in the de­tailed ob­ser­va­tions, as well as enor­mous ob­ser­va­to­ries still on the draw­ing board.

MIT’s Sara Sea­ger, an as­tro­physi­cist who has ded­i­cated her life to find­ing another Earth, imag­ines wa­ter worlds wait­ing to be ex­plored. Per­haps hot su­per Earths with lakes of liq­uid lava. Maybe even rocky or icy plan­ets with thin at­mos­pheres rem­i­nis­cent of Earth.

‘‘It’s not In­ter­stel­lar or Ar­rival. Not yet any­way,’’ she said, re­fer­ring to the re­cent hit sci­encefic­tion films.

The to­tal mis­sion price tag for Tess is US$337 mil­lion.

Fairly small as space­craft go, the 362kg, 1.2 me­tre by 1.5m craft will ride a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion. Liftoff is sched­uled for Mon­day evening US time. Its even­tual or­bit of Earth will stretch all the way to the or­bit of the moon. ‘‘It packs a big punch, and that’s the part that we’re re­ally ex­cited about,’’ Ricker said.

Tess’ four cam­eras will zoom in on red dwarf stars in our cos­mic back­yard – an av­er­age 10 times closer than the Ke­pler-ob­served stars. The ma­jor­ity of stars in the Tess sur­vey will be 300 light-years to 500 light-years away, ac­cord­ing to Ricker.

The space­craft will sur­vey al­most the en­tire sky, start­ing with the South­ern Hemi­sphere for a year, then the North­ern Hemi­sphere for a year. Even more years of scan­ning could fol­low. – AP

Nasa’s ga­lac­tic scout Tess will be on the search for the bright­est stars - for a cool US$337 mil­lion.

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