Published: Wed, April 18, 2018
Research | By Dana Schwartz

Launch delay for Nasa's planet-hunting spacecraft


If the probe can not launch by April 26, the team may have to stand down for up to 45 days to accommodate the launch of NASA's InSight Mars mission.

With NASA's current planet hunting observatory, Kepler, running on fumes, boffins need to get TESS into orbit to continue the flow of data and, hopefully, discoveries. Here are five things to know about the exciting new mission.

Severe storms Sunday night that held the potential to delay the rocket from going vertical were expected to clear for Monday's 30-second launch window. TESS is an Earth-orbiting instrument meant to spot faraway planets circling some 200,000 stars within 300 light-years of Earth. TESS will also be able to survey 20 times the amount of sky surveyed by Kepler from its High Earth Orbit. But if TESS doesn't launch by April 26, it may be bumped for 45 days for the launch of NASA's InSight Mars Mission.

TESS will pick up the search for exoplanets as the Kepler Space Telescope runs out of fuel. This involves watching a star for dips in its light as a planet passes between the star and the telescope.

In spite of an aborted attempt Monday, NASA hopes to launch a new satellite soon that will search for planets outside of our solar system that could support life.

According to a press release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, TESS will use the same method, but unlike Kepler, it will scan nearly the entire sky. Then they cast a shadow, the light of the star is temporarily a little darker. Last year, the company had 18 launches; if today's goes as planned, it will have eight on the year, translating to a 2018 average of one launch every two weeks.

What may surprise you is that the TESS cameras can't send back an actual image of a planet.

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Another point for the red dwarfs: because they are so cool, planets can sidle up close without getting burned.

Many of TESS's planets should be close enough to our own that, once they are identified by TESS, scientists can zoom in on them using other telescopes, to detect atmospheres, characterise atmospheric conditions, and even look for signs of habitability.

NASA predicts that TESS could discover in excess of 50 Earth-examined planets and to 500 planets not as much as double the extent of the Earth.

TESS will use the same transit method Kepler used to find planets. As Harrison Tasoff at Space.com reports, researchers have a list of molecules they are searching for in the data. If his ballon-stunt works (it's probably not a real party balloon, but since it's Musk we're talking about here, who knows), SpaceX would have become capable of recovering almost the entire assembly. After water, oxygen would be fantastic. But many were too distant and dim to study further.

Scientists expect that the TESS telescope will continue Kepler's work and discover thousands of other Earth-like and super-Earth-sized exoplanets.

Just a couple of decades ago, the notion of finding habitable planets - or any planets at all - was a mere fantasy, said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at Nasa. It will also help scientists refine the Drake Equation, the formula that estimates how many detectable, technologically-advanced civilizations may exist in our Milky Way.

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