Published: Wed, April 18, 2018
Sci-tech | By Lila Blake

NASA goes in search of aliens

NASA goes in search of aliens

TESS is the first NASA spacecraft that SpaceX will launch that is created to peer deep into the cosmos.

Planet hunters will be keeping their fingers crossed this evening as SpaceX flings NASA's 350kg Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) into a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth. The idea is that a few planets orbiting these stars may be similar to our own. It was in 1992 that the first two exoplanets were discovered orbiting a pulsar-a rapidly rotating neutron star-2,300 light years from Earth.

The satellite is about the size of a refrigerator and comes with solar-panel wings and four special cameras.

Adding to the anxiety will be the fact that TESS will be put into an orbit never attempted before, out as far as the moon and back to Earth, lasting 14 days at a time. Because they also wanted to be sure their selections were relatively close to Earth, they focused their efforts on a 2.8-million-star catalog called SUPERBLINK, created by Georgia State University astronomer Sébastien Lépine, which lists stars that appear to move quickly across the sky.


The new planet hunting satellite will be launched by Elon Musk's company Space X on Monday at Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. "To me, the most exciting part of any mission is the unexpected result, the one that nobody saw coming".

It is unlikely that JWST or any other existing telescope would be capable of detecting biosignatures on an exoplanet as small as Earth.

The NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission is led and operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center.

"Mass is a defining planetary characteristic", said Sara Seager, TESS deputy director of science at MIT.


And that's all in low-Earth orbit, he said, with the station wheeling in wild, unpredictable circles and half the sky blocked out by a giant planet, covering different pulsars every 45 minutes.

"If you look at what Kepler found, nobody assumed there'd be a planet that might be made all of diamond, or all that there could be worlds that are all covered in water, or things like that", said Volosin. "We're on this scenic tour of the whole sky, and in some ways we have no idea what we will see". Yet red dwarfs are actually the galactic norm, making up about 70 percent of all stars, says Philip Muirhead, assistant professor of astronomy at Boston University. "Now, go after them". A data pipeline has been established so that TESS can fulfill its mission.

When active, TESS will collect 27GB of scientific data every day before being put through NASA's specialist algorithms, which are created to clean up the signal to remove any background interference. Scientists were allowed to name around 20,000 objects and Tess will provide data on them. "So it's got to be there somewhere".


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