TESS is created to build on the work of its predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, which discovered the bulk of some 3,700 exoplanets documented by astronomers during the past 20 years and is about to run out of fuel.
The spacecraft will spend the next two years observing 200,000 of the brightest points in the night's sky, with the NASA team hopeful that by the time the mission is over, it will have found 20,000 exoplanets, of which 500 might be Earth-sized. Of these, approximately 300 are expected to be Earth-sized and super-Earth-sized exoplanets, which are worlds no larger than twice the size of Earth.
The Tess satellite will scan nearly the entire sky, staring at the brightest, closest stars in an effort to find any planets that might be encircling them. The craft is set to sweep the sky as it orbits the earth for two years. The powerful cameras on the spacecraft will stare at each sector for at least 27 days, looking at the brightest stars at a two-minute cadence.
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. He is interested in the variations in the brightness of the stars that will be observed by Tess. Dr George Ricker of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission.
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TESS is one of several important pieces of what NASA calls the "Exoplanet Missions", which got off the ground with the hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope.
While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it hard to conduct follow-up observations. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily. Then, on regular intervals, the data on the identified planets will be transmitted back to Earth, which astronomers can use for follow-up studies. These ground-based telescopes will collaborate with other ground-based telescopes to measure the masses of the planets.
"We're expecting to find 2,000-3,000 planets that are certainly below the size of our Jupiter and majority below the size of Neptune; so, the ones that have the potential for being terrestrial, for being rocky", said Jennifer Burt from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which leads the mission.
And don't miss our in-depth coverage of TESS, how the telescope works, and why the mission could lead to groundbreaking discoveries in the search for habitable planets.