Skip to comments.Meet TESS, NASA’s Next Step in the Quest for Alien Earths
Posted on 03/02/2018 3:39:16 PM PST by LibWhacker
In a clean room inside a clean room at NASAs Kennedy Space Center, a petite telescope is perched on a stand for a final series of checkouts prior to launch. The extra fastidiousness is because the observatorys four cameras will fly without protective coversone of several simplifying design decisions made to help ensure the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will meet its goal of measuring the masses of at least 50 small, rocky and potentially Earth-like worlds as part of the first all-sky, exoplanet survey.
TESS was proposed even before NASAs planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, demonstrated the viability of a space-based exoplanet survey. Both telescopes use the so-called transit method (as opposed to these techniques) to find planets, looking for worlds in silhouette as they pass in front of their parent stars relative to the telescopes lines of sight. Kepler not only established transits as the dominant planet-hunting technique, it also stunningly revealed our galaxy brims with planets, particularly worlds two to four times the size of Earth.
During its initial mission, Kepler scouted stars more than a thousand light-years away in a patch of sky within the constellations Cygnus, Lyra and Draco. So far, scientists have confirmed 2,341 exoplanets circling stars in Keplers original pool of some 170,000 targets. Another 4,496 candidate planets are pending, but many may never be confirmed because their stellar hosts are too dim to be easily observed by ground-based telescopes for necessary follow-up studies.
The TESS team took the opposite approach, starting with what ground observations would be needed to follow-up and confirm candidate transiting Earth-like planets, and then deciding on specific targets for the telescope. They selected about 200,000 stars for study during TESSs two-year primary mission. Each of those target stars already has been plotted in detail by the European Space Agencys ongoing Gaia space telescope, which is creating the best-yet all-sky catalogue of stellar positions and distances.
Most of TESSs targets are within 300 light-years from Earth, significantly closer and up to a hundred times brighter than most of the stars studied by Kepler. On TESS, we will be able to do ground-based follow-up on all of them. It will just be a matter of priorities, not abilities, says project scientist Stephen Rinehart, with NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center.
The transit technique pioneered by Kepler and planned for TESS reveals the size of a planet relative to its host star. If several transits can be observed, scientists also can determine how far from the star a planet orbitsinformation that can then be used to estimate its temperature and whether it could support liquid water on its surface, a key consideration for habitability.
But to assess a planets masswhich is needed to determine whether it is dense with metal and rock like Earth or instead composed of ice or gasastronomers usually turn to ground-based telescopes. Often only a relatively modest observatory, it turns out, is needed to look for wobbles in a stars spin caused by the slight but regular gravitational tugging of its orbiting planetary brood. The TESS project is enlisting dozens of astronomers and reserving time on several ground-based telescopes for such studies.
The Hunt Is On
The hunt for neighboring Earth-like planets begins about two months after TESSs launch, which is currently slated for mid-April. Thats when the telescope should arrive in an unusual operational orbit that loops high around Earth, passing only as close as about 67,300 miles before zooming out to nearly the orbit of the moon some 234,000 miles away. When TESS is at the highest point of its orbit with respect to Earth, the moon will be 90 degrees to the left or right, serving as an orbital ballast that will keep the telescope gravitationally steady for decades without the use of steering thrusters.
This eccentric orbit allows TESS to spend most of its time in deep, dark space, with minimal interference from sunshine and the light reflecting off Earth and the moon. The spacecraft will swing around the planet every 13.7 days, orbiting exactly twice as fast as the moon. When TESS is closest to Earth it will suspend observations for 10 hours to transmit stored science data to one of NASAs three Deep Space Network ground stations. Those transmissions will occur on high-rate, Ka-band frequenciesa first for the network that will pave the way for other data-intensive future space missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope.
TESSs data will not only include measurements of each target stars brightness taken every two minutes, but also a full-sky image taken every half-hour capturing more than 20 million stars and 10 million galaxies. Its just going to be this treasure trove of data. We expect that that archive will be mined for years, says NASA astronomer Patricia Boyd, who leads Goddards TESS Guest Investigator Program.
The telescope is outfitted with four cameras positioned to cover a wedge of sky 24 degrees across and 96 degrees long, the equivalent of about 10,000 full moons. Shifting its field of view every two orbits, TESS will cover the skys entire southern hemisphere during the first year of operation and then flip to cover its northern hemisphere in the second year. In all, TESS will cover 90 percent of the sky, an area about 400 times larger than what Kepler observed.
Of key interest are the stars around the ecliptic poles, which will be included in each slice of the sky covered by TESS. These are the stars directly above and below the ecliptic plane, in which the planets move around the sun. Worlds in these regions will become primary targets for follow-up studies by the James Webb Space Telescope, which, among its many other tasks, will attempt to ferret out the atmospheric chemistry for some transiting exoplanets. Webb is slated to launch in 2019. In that role TESS serves as a finder scope for Webb. Were finding the particular star that actually potentially hosts an exoplanet around it, says TESS lead scientist George Ricker, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ricker adds that it shouldnt be hard to meet the TESS mission goal to measure the mass of 50 small planets. Simulations forecast that by the end of the initial three-year ground observation program, the team should have verified more like 500 small planets, not 50, he says.
Ultimately, TESS could contribute as many as 20,000 new planets to the exoplanet catalogue, most of which will be circling M-dwarf stars that are one quarter to one half the diameter of the sun and much dimmer and cooler. M-dwarfs, which comprise about 70 percent of stars in the Milky Way, are TESSs primary targets.
To me the most exciting thing about any new mission is the thing you dont expect, says Rinehart, the project scientist. I really hope that somewhere along the line we find something bizarre, something that we cant explain that requires us to really think hard about what it is were seeing. I think we will, but I have no idea what it will be.
We are using tin cans with strings. Aliens are really on a different frequency.
Some of this exploration is extremely jumping the gun.
We are barely in the kindergarten stage of space exploration, and hundreds of years away from actually exploring the stars beyond our own system - which leaves five times that hundreds of years in decades, before such information will have an ounce of practicality to human space exploration - leaving amble time for such endeavors in the future.
Meanwhile the practical limits of our current kindergarten stage of actual exploration are starved for funds so much that priorities on those funds limit what we can do to less than what we know we can do.
We should waste less funds on the not-yet-practical and shift all NASA funding to what we can practically do now, and practically do sooner; not what we won’t need to know for hundreds of years.
In 1870 it was said:
We are barely in the kindergarten stage of oil-powered vehicles, and hundreds of years away from actually exploring automobiles...
Send your box cameras into space!
What you will see is our invasion fleet getting closer and closer!
Soon, you will know the wrath of the Glaxnovian Fleet as we conquer you and free our brothers, the squirrels!
Actually, no one in 1870 said that.
The closest star is how far? And human DNA is already degraded by spaceflight on as short of distances we presently make. And we can yet see the technologies that will allow spaceflight durations that will last many years, perhaps a lifetime. No, the analogy from automobiles to space travel does not work. Too many things are not parallel at all.
Just making the point, technology is exponentially advancing...
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We should waste less funds on the not-yet-practical and shift all NASA funding to what we can practically do now, and practically do sooner; not what we wont need to know for hundreds of years.
It would be very easy to construct a counter-argument, that learning what we can about our galactic neighborhood is more important than scratching around on local solar system rocks.
I want us to do both those things but my only point is you are so sure one is a waste of money and I think if I was at my computer and not on my phone right now I could easily list reasons why space telescopes are the best things to spend our space dollars on at this time in our history.
I am not opposed to space telescopes in general. I have even proposed that our moon would make a good space telescope-base location.
As far as giving priority with any government funded space telescopes, in a specific program of searching for “earth-like” “exoplanets”, I see that as the lowest of the low of space telescope priorities at this time.
When would such knowledge have practical import to our own human-exploration space program? When we have “conquered” our own solar system and are technologically prepared to go, humanly, beyond it.
How many generations do we have before that is a reality?
More than the current fantasy predictions think.
By now, according to predictions just fifty years ago, we were already supposed to be out exploring our solar system, with colonies on the moon and mars, everyone driving “air cars”, ect., ect.
No. I am satisfied that now is not the time for making search’s for “earth like” planets a priority. Folks can do it. I just don’t think tax dollars should have anything to do with it.
Whether life exists elsewhere is an important question for many people. I think you’ve been outvoted.
It is not a question of whether “life” elsewhere is “important”. Over the millenniums ahead of us it no doubt will be. We are so far away from any practicality of that to humans at this time, it’s ridiculous.
“Life” on Mars, or somewhere in this solar system. Yes, we have some practical use in that now, as we begin to get prepared to humanly explore our own solar system.
“Life” on some “exoplanet” 1,000 light years from us? Zero practical importance at this time, and we have a long ways ahead of us in which it will be reasonable for us to see it as important in any practical sense.
Life on some exoplanet 1,000 light years from us? Zero practical importance at this time, and we have a long ways ahead of us in which it will be reasonable for us to see it as important in any practical sense.
It has zero practical importance to you, but it has has inspirational value to many, and that can be very valuable.
“but it has has inspirational value to many, and that can be very valuable”
Valuable to whom? To those who want the taxpayers to foot the bills for it?
Do I consider whether “life” exists on some other planets somewhere? Sure. Am I concerned about it? No. Do I lose sleep over it? No. Do I think it is an immediate pressing human concern? No. “Inspirational value”? Why and in what way?
We have plenty of time ahead of us for answering questions like that.
Right now it’s like asking to tell two year olds about sex. There is as yet no need to know, and we are less than “two year olds” when it comes to exploring the universe.
Go ahead. Look for “planet X”. Just don’t dun the taxpayers for it.
Like I said, you’ve been outvoted on the issue.
Science is not a “consensus” nor does it take votes.
It’s a good thing you’re not the dictator of what projects get funded.
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