NASA space­craft aims to iden­tify mys­tery plan­ets on ga­lac­tic map

The Maui News - - NATION/IN - By MAR­CIA DUNN The As­so­ci­ated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Call­ing all plan­ets that or­bit around bright, nearby stars: NASA’s new Tess space­craft is look­ing to do a head count.

The Tran­sit­ing Ex­o­planet Sur­vey Satel­lite — Tess for short — is em­bark­ing to­day on a two-year quest to find and iden­tify mys­tery worlds thought to be lurk­ing in our cos­mic back­yard. The space­craft aims to add thou­sands of ex­o­plan­ets, or plan­ets be­yond our so­lar sys­tem, to the ga­lac­tic map for fu­ture study.

Life might be out there, whether mi­cro­bial or more ad­vanced, and sci­en­tists say Tess and later mis­sions will help an­swer the age-old ques­tion of whether we’re alone.

“It is very ex­cit­ing . . . . By hu­man na­ture, we look for ex­plo­ration and ad­ven­ture, and this is an op­por­tu­nity to see what’s next,” NASA’s San­dra Connelly, a sci­ence pro­gram di­rec­tor, said Sun­day on the eve of launch.

Tess is fly­ing on a SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket, sched­uled to blast off at 6:32 p.m. to­day from Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion.

Here’s a peek at lit­tle Tess and its cre­ators’ big am­bi­tions.

Space­craft: At 5 feet , Tess is shorter than most adults and down­right puny com­pared with most other space­craft. The ob­ser­va­tory is 4 feet across, not count­ing the so­lar wings, which are folded for launch, and weighs just 800 pounds. NASA says it’s some­where be­tween the size of a re­frig­er­a­tor and a stacked washer and dryer. Four wide-view cam­eras are sur­rounded by a sun shade, to keep stray light out as they mon­i­tor any dips in bright­ness from tar­get stars. Re­peated dips would in­di­cate a planet pass­ing in front of its star.

Or­bit: Tess will aim for a unique elon­gated or­bit that passes within 45,000 miles of Earth on one end and as far away as the or­bit of the moon on the other end. NASA in­sists there’s no chance of Tess hit­ting any other satel­lites or run­ning into the moon, which should never be any­where close. The lu­nar grav­ity will keep the space­craft sta­bi­lized in this or­bit for decades to come, with no fuel needed. It will take Tess two weeks to cir­cle Earth.

Job: Tess will scan al­most the en­tire sky dur­ing its $337 mil­lion mis­sion, star­ing at hun­dreds of thou­sands, even mil­lions of small, faint red dwarf stars. Sci­en­tists ex­pect to dis­cover thou­sands of plan­ets that, over time, will un­dergo fur­ther scru­tiny by pow­er­ful tele­scopes in space and on Earth. That’s why NASA, Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and and other col­lab­o­ra­tors are tar­get­ing stars within hun­dreds or, at most, thou­sands of light-years: It will make the de­tailed searches yet to come that much eas­ier. NASA’s planet-hunt­ing pi­o­neer, the Ke­pler Space Tele­scope, has spent the past nine years fo­cus­ing on con­sid­er­ably fainter, more dis­tant stars and dis­cov­ered nearly three-quar­ters of the 3,700-plus ex­o­plan­ets con­firmed to date. With Tess, “our plan­e­tary cen­sus is go­ing to move in” closer to us, MIT re­searcher Jenn Burt said Sun­day. Satel­lite maker Or­bital ATK’s Robert Lock­wood said he ex­pects Tess to take ex­o­planet dis­cov­ery to a whole new level.

Alien life: Tess has no in­stru­ments ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing life. Its job is to find and char­ac­ter­ize plan­ets that will be­come the main tar­gets of fu­ture tele­scopes. “By look­ing at such a large sec­tion of the sky, this kind of stel­lar real es­tate, we open up the abil­ity to cher­ryp­ick the best stars for do­ing fol­low-up sci­ence,” said Burt. NASA’s James Webb Space Tele­scope, once launched in 2020 or so, will probe these plan­ets’ at­mos­pheres for po­ten­tial traces of life. Gi­ant tele­scopes still in con­struc­tion or on the draw­ing board also will lend a hand.

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