Calling all planets that orbit around bright, nearby stars: NASA’s new Tess spacecraft is looking to do a head count. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — Tess for short — is embarking Monday on a two-year quest to find and identify mystery worlds thought to be lurking in our cosmic backyard. The spacecraft aims to add thousands of exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, to the galactic map for future study.
Life might be out there, whether microbial or more advanced, and scientists say Tess and later missions will help answer the age-old question of whether we’re alone.
“It is very exciting. … By human nature, we look for exploration and adventure, and this is an opportunity to see what’s next,” NASA’s Sandra Connelly, a science program director, said Sunday on the eve of launch.
Tess is flying on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to blast off at 6:32 p.m. Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Here’s a peek at little Tess and its creators’ big ambitions.
SPACECRAFT: At 5 feet (1.5 meters), Tess is shorter than most adults and downright puny compared with most other spacecraft. The observatory is 4 feet across (1.2 meters), not counting the solar wings, which are folded for launch, and weighs just 800 pounds (362 kilograms). NASA says it’s somewhere between the size of a refrigerator and a stacked washer and dryer. Four wide-view cameras are surrounded by a sun shade, to keep stray light out as they monitor any dips in brightness from target stars. Repeated dips would indicate a planet passing in front of its star.
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. NASA insists there’s no chance of…