TESS: Detect Exoplanets near Bright Stars

Artist’s conception of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Image Credit: MIT

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will discover thousands of exoplanets in orbit around the brightest stars in the sky. In a two-year survey of the solar neighborhood, TESS will monitor more than 500,000 stars for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. This first-ever space-borne all-sky transit survey will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, around a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. No ground-based survey can achieve this feat.

Our speaker was Dr. Stephen Rinehart, who is interested in the formation and evolution of stars and of planetary systems, and continues to work on new concepts for future experiments that will help unravel the mysteries of the lives of stars and planets.

Q: What is an exoplanet?
A: As explained to me, an exoplanet (or extrasolar planet) is a planet orbiting a star different from the Sun.

Q: How do we find them?
Exoplanets are difficult to see from Earth because they are so small and are easily lost in the glare of bright stars. Thereby, we need instruments with precision in order to accurately and easily identify these exoplanets. Which is where TESS comes in.

I learned that NASA identified the first exoplanet 25 years ago and believe there could be about 17,000 more to be discovered. TESS is a study that will look at these small exoplanets and do followup observations to learn about their orbit. Dr. Rinehart hopes this will teach us about the diversity of worlds and about the individuality of these planets.

Q: How will TESS work?
A: TESS will monitor the brightnesses of more than 500,000 stars during a two year mission, searching for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. TESS will scan the entire sky with four cameras in its search. From my understanding, the first stage will last for two years, followed by a third year where ground-based telescopes will continue to monitor the exoplanets found during the first two years by TESS. By the end of the mission, TESS should have covered about 90 percent of the sky.

Q: When?
A: TESS has been selected by NASA for launch in 2017 as an Astrophysics Explorer mission.

My impression is that by discovering exoplanets closer to home will have a greater impact in the search for life elsewhere. With the exploration of these exoplanets, I think it will be easier for other NASA missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which could help scientists determine which exoplanets may have a habitable environment. So, kinda like the film Intersteller (joke). I was surprised to hear that at least 50 new Earth-sized exoplanets are expected to be found, where temperatures and other conditions could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces. However, the most exciting discovery I look forward to: whether exoplanets may support life. Just imagine living there. Though, your address will be weird. To point out, these exoplanets are given strange names, such as Exoplanet PSR B1620-26 b, believed to have formed an incredible 13 billion years ago, less than a billion years after the big bang and nicknamed Methuselah. Try fitting all that in a post card 🙂

Spread the word, y’all! NASA has had a great stretch of good news recently. Hopefully it helps to stretch the imagination of young Americans to pursue science and engineering careers.

>> For more specifics, visit the TESS Fact Sheet


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