NASA's TESS to launch on Monday to hunt planets

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While the Kepler was able to survey a very specific part of the sky for exoplanets, finding worlds of many sizes, TESS will help researchers find more planets that are around the same size as Earth, helping scientists along in the search for a world out there in the universe like our own.

Meteorologists with the US Air Force 45th Space Wing have predicted an 80 per cent chance of favourable weather for SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket's launch with NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite aimed at detecting planets outside our solar system.

"We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars", he said.

That all changed with the launch of the Kepler space telescope in 2009. TESS is packaged up and ready to go, as you see at right.

George Ricker, from the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is leading the mission. Tess is equipped with four cameras, primed to zoom in on a red dwarf star at 10 times closer than the Kepler was able to achieve.

The satellite will look at stars that are only about 300 light-years away, potentially paving the way for follow-up observations of whatever planets might be found around those stars. "This is really a mission for the ages".

Because TESS surveys the whole sky it will provide data on many more stars than Kepler did. More than 3,700 exoplanets have been listed and an additional 4,500 are on the "strong contender" list. What is the size distribution of planets like? Some exoplanets are between the size of Earth and Neptune, placing them in a new size category. Stephen Rinehart, the project scientist for TESS at NASA, tells The Verge. "What is this planet actually like?'" It's thought the satellite will pull back the mystery surrounding thousands of potentially life-sustaining exoplanets, some of which could be colonized in the future or contain astonishing alien life. The most recent exoplanets to make headlines were the ones announced in February 2017 in the Trappist system. "Not yet anyway", she said, referring to two recent hit sci-fi films. However, in March it was reported by NASA that the Kepler spacecraft was running extremely low on fuel and would be running out completely within just a few months.

"We should be able to find 20,000 planets of all sizes ranging from Jupiter-sized planets to planets the size of Earth or even the size of Mars".

That work will require telescopes to examine the tiny fraction of starlight that passes through a planet's thin shell of atmosphere (if it has one) and look for the fingerprints of life-friendly molecules like free oxygen, methane and water.

"They're going to become not just names in a catalog - they're going to become destinations, they're going to take on personalities", Batalha said of those planetary profiles.

You've probably heard the words "Houston, we've had a problem" (or rather, the erroneous version, "Houston, we have a problem), but do you know who those words were spoken to?"

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