Published: Thu, April 19, 2018
Research | By Dana Schwartz

In Florida, all systems go for SpaceX's launch of space telescope

In Florida, all systems go for SpaceX's launch of space telescope

The engine of the Falcon 9's Merlin 1D booster had ignited at 2:30 PM (EDT) on as a hold-down clamp that firmly kept the rockets on Earth at the 40 launch pad of the Cape Canaveral. The launch was originally scheduled for Monday evening, but at the last minute, NASA said the launch team made a decision to delay to "conduct additional guidance navigation and control analysis". NASA's planet-hunting pioneer, the Kepler Space Telescope, has spent the past nine years focusing on considerably fainter, more distant stars and discovered almost three-quarters of the 3,700-plus exoplanets confirmed to date.

"We're going to discover a diversity of exoplanets", said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist from Goddard.

"It was incredible. It was so emotional", said Natalia Guerrero, a TESS researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an interview on NASA TV after the launch. "We know that planets in principle exist there", says Ricker, "but there's really not much more we can say other than that they exist'".

TESS is expected to reveal 20,000 planets beyond our solar system, including more than 50 Earth-sized planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of the Earth, NASA said.

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A new voyage is hopefully setting sail tonight; one that could lead to the discovery of many new worlds, some of which may even harbor life. Kepler's camera sensors don't exactly take a picture of a planet, but look for the dimming effect caused by a planet passing in front of its star. Those planets could be studied using the James Webb Space Telescope that NASA is supposed to launch in a couple of years. Scientists expect to discover thousands of planets that, over time, will undergo further scrutiny by powerful telescopes in space and on Earth. TESS will scan an area 350 times greater than Kepler.

Even the closest exoplanets found in our solar neighborhood will be light years away - too far for humans to visit. The celebrated Trappist-1 star, with at least seven Earth-size terrestrial planets, is an ultra-cool red dwarf that's just a little bigger than Jupiter. In these images, astronomers will search for the slight changes in brightness that happen when a planet passes between its home star and TESS's lenses.

"The ultimate goal is to find small, probably rocky planets orbiting in a sweet spot around stars that's not too hot, and not too cold". The Webb telescope is created to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets to look for traces of oxygen, carbon dioxide, or methane - which could suggest the presence of life.

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