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Planet Hunting Telescope Celebrates One Year Of Space-Based Science

NASA's TESS space telescope will look for "cosmic winks" as a sign of planets outside our solar system. Photo: NASA
NASA's TESS space telescope will look for "cosmic winks" as a sign of planets outside our solar system. Photo: NASA

NASA’s planet hunting satellite has completed its first year of science in space. The spacecraft searched the southern sky for signs of so-called exoplanets. The mission seeks to answer one of science's age-old questions: are we alone in the universe?

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, identifies planets outside our solar system by staring at the stars. When a planet passes between the star and the spacecraft, the light of that star dims. TESS measures the dip in light -- and scientists can use that data to determine what kind of planet is causing the dimming.

[caption id="attachment_130167" align="alignright" width="400"] This diagram shows the layout of the GJ 357 system. Planet d orbits within the star’s so-called habitable zone, the orbital region where liquid water can exist on a rocky planet’s surface. Photo: NASA[/caption]

This week, NASA announced TESS has found a new planet about 31 light years away that exists in the so-called habitable zone -- meaning it’s the right distance away from its host star to have liquid water.

"The TESS mission is part of the path towards actual establishing whether or not there is life out there in the universe,” said Daniel Batcheldor, head of aerospace, physics and space science at Florida Tech.

The observations will help future telescopes, both on the ground and in space, make even more detailed observations of these planets and search for signs of life.

Its predecessor, space-based telescope Kepler, surveyed only one patch of sky and uncovered thousands of exoplanet candidates. In its first year, TESS surveyed the entire southern sky.

"It is only halfway done with its first look of the whole celestial sphere. We can expect many more discoveries of small Earth-like, rocky planets around nearby stars and multiple planetary systems as well," said Batcheldor. "Indeed, we will finally have an idea about where the nearest planetary systems are to the sun."

TESS is also capturing images of comets, exocomets and supernovae.

Hundreds of exoplanet candidates have been identified by data from TESS. Planetary scientists will now confirm the data using other ground and space-based telescopes.

“The team is currently focused on finding the best candidates to confirm by ground-based follow-up,” said Natalia Guerrero, who manages the team in charge of identifying exoplanet candidates at MIT. “But there are many more potential exoplanet candidates in the data yet to be analyzed, so we’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg here. TESS has only scratched the surface.”

TESS launched last April from Cape Canaveral. It took about three months to check all the systems of the spacecraft before starting its first science campaign July 25, 2018.

The mission cost $200 million, which is cheap compared to other space-based telescopes.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."