NASA’s Planet-Hunting TESS Spacecraft Is Now Operational

NASA’s Planet-Hunting TESS Spacecraft Is Now Operational

After its successful launch in April, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission has started collecting data. It took a little longer than expected to get the spacecraft fully tested and ready for action, but the agency says it began data collection on July 27th. We won’t get the first set of observations for several weeks, though.

When TESS launched, NASA said it would need 60 days to test the probe before it could begin operating. However, that self-imposed deadline came and went. NASA said it would have TESS ready for action by the end of July, a little over 90 days after launch. It made the deadline, but only by a little.

TESS is a spiritual successor to Kepler, the space observatory responsible for detecting most of the currently known exoplanets. Like Kepler, TESS uses the transit method to detect exoplanets. It watches distant stars for small dips in brightness, which could indicate that a planet has passed in front of them. This data has to be validated by repeated observations, and a human usually needs to verify the discovery. Although, Google has been working with NASA on AI that can do most of the work.

The first order of business for TESS it to scan a patch of sky in the southern hemisphere covering 2,300 degrees from the south ecliptic pole to near the ecliptic plane. Basically, it’s looking for potential exoplanets in a strip of the sky running from the far south to near the equator. Eventually, TESS should be able to observe about 85 percent of the sky over its expected two-year mission. The first year will cover the southern hemisphere, and then it’ll move on to the northern half of the sky.

NASA’s Planet-Hunting TESS Spacecraft Is Now Operational

TESS will be able to scan more of the sky than Kepler did, but it won’t look at objects as far away. Kepler had a maximum range of around 3,000 light years, but TESS will limit observations to a distance of 300 light years. NASA hopes TESS will be able to track down more super-Earth planets with its powerful array of cameras. These objects are more massive than Earth, but they’re not gas giants. It will be able to determine the mass, size, density, and orbital characteristics of any such planets.

The first data download from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is scheduled for August 8th. The team may need to make adjustments to TESS after seeing the first results, but big things are ahead for this mission.