New Exoplanet Hunting Mission Scheduled for Launch Today

| April 18, 2018 @ 10:00 am

Exoplanets are a pretty amazing topic and one that can leave you feeling pretty small.  Technological advancements continue to increase our understanding of the universe at an ever increasing rate. 

Copernicus cast aside the notion that the Earth is the center of Universe 500 years ago.  30 years ago a Canadian team of astronomers discovered the first exponent, Gamma Cephei Ab, this began an avalanche of exoplanet discoveries casting aside the notion that our solar system is unique. TESS follows on the success of the Kepler mission which discovered 70% of the more than 3700 confirmed planets beyond our solar system.

Both Kepler and Tess  discover exoplanets by watching the stars.  Watching them for minute variations in brightness, the tell-tale signs of exoplanets.  These down in front moments don’t just tell us the planet is there, they provide clues about the mass, orbital period and sometimes even the makeup of the atmosphere of these planets, if there is one.

Kepler did this with what amounts to a pencil thin beam of a survey that covered about 4% of the sky.

Planetary scientists talk of expectations of “thousands” of exoplanets that are expected to be discovered by TESS.  Thousands is a very conservative choice of words here.

TESS will cover 85% of the sky by the end of its 2 year primary mission focusing on those stars which are next door to us, a mere 200 light years away.  It does so with a much wider field of view too.  While Kepler’s cameras covered about 115 square degrees, or about “two scoops of the big dipper”, TESS’s cameras have a combined field of view of some 2,300 square degress.  For comparison the thats about nearly 50 times the width of the full moon.

Launch was targetef for a 30 second window beginning at 6:32 this evening but the countdown clock was stopped during final checks, about 3 hours before scheduled liftoff.  SpaceX pointed to a need for additional analysis of Guidance Navigation and Control systems and is targeting Wednesday April 18 for another try.  You only get another try while the rocket is on the ground after all.

Looking at the planned orbit and the now scrubbed launch windows established for Monday and Tuesday.  I’d look for sometime between 5:30 and 6pm Eastern for that next attempt. The twitter accounts @SpaceX and @NASA_TESS are good sources for the times ultimately selected by the launch team.    You can watch live on air or online via NASA TV beginning about 90 minutes before launch.

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Tony Rice is a Solar System Ambassador for NASA/JPL and the voice and brains behinds the weekly Astronomy Report on the WeatherBrains podcast. He grew up in Southern California with Space Shuttle landings and was hooked. He brings weather and space together to communicate the excitement of space exploration and promote a greater appreciation for Earth sciences.

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