Saturday, March 14, 2015
Planet Hunter: TESS
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will be launched in 2017 as an Astrophysics Explorer mission. This satellite will be an Explorer class planet finder. As the first ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey, TESS will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants that orbit around their bright host star in the solar neighborhood. The mission goal is to find detailed characterizations of these planets and determine their atmospheres.
NASA will launch TESS from Cape Canaveral, Florida in August of 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and will achieve a unique high altitude orbit according to the mission’s top scientist, George Ricker. The satellite will carry four wide field-of-view 16.8 megapixel cameras to cover 400 times the area of the sky seen by Kepler. In its two year mission TESS will be circle nearby stars and look for planets. Part of the mission is a follow up of observations from Earth to determine whether the alien worlds might be suitable for life.
TESS is expected to monitor more than 500,000 stars during its mission, searching for temporary fluctuations in brightness caused by planetary transits. Transits occur when a planet’s orbit carries it directly in front of its host star as viewed from Earth. It should be able to catalog more than 3,000 transiting exoplanet candidates. This would include 500 Earth-sized and super-Earth sized planets as well as smaller rocky ice planets in the ‘goldilocks’ or habitable zone. It is hoped that these observations will refine the measurements of the planet masses, sizes, densities, and atmospheric properties.
This will be the first ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey which means that the search for exoplanets is heating up, and it appears that Earth’s scientists have no intention of slowing down. Our sun is a Class G star – or a yellow-white main sequence star. TESS will be able to detect the variances in a star’s brightness and will be looking for Class M stars (or suns) that are a bit cooler than our own sun. Class M stars are reddish stars 2 to 3 times more abundant as solar type stars. How many of these suns will we actually find? What are the chances of finding another planet similar to Earth? What are the odds of finding a planet that supports any type of life? I, for one, am very curious to see what is out there. Aren’t you?