NASA's planet-hunting satellite, TESS, is launched into space on Wednesday, April 18 at 6:51 p.m. ET, aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral.
The original schedule was set on Monday, April 16, but the launch had to be postponed to allow for additional Guidance Navigation and Control check. The Falcon 9 rocket had a 30-second launch window.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is a breakthrough in NASA's mission to further explore the universe. The $337-million TESS telescope will search for planets outside the solar system and possibly ones that can support life.
Getting Help From The Moon
TESS's mission extends for a period of two years. Aside from its fuel, scientists said the moon's gravity will help it stay on orbit for the duration of its mission.
"The Moon and the satellite are in a sort of dance. The Moon pulls the satellite on one side, and by the time TESS completes one orbit, the Moon is on the other side tugging in the opposite direction. The overall effect is the Moon's pull is evened out, and it's a very stable configuration over many years," said Joel Villasenor, TESS instrument scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For the first 60 days, TESS will establish its orbit and test its instruments before commencing the mission. NASA said it expects to find around 20,000 exoplanets with TESS's four wide-field cameras.
However, TESS images will not necessarily pinpoint which of the confirmed exoplanets can sustain life. Instead, the data will be used by future space missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to launch in 2020, and ARIEL by the European Space Agency in 2028.
How Is TESS Different?
Prior to TESS, the American space agency used Kepler Space Telescope, which is reported to cover less than 1 percent of the sky and detect about 5,400 exoplanets.
"Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed. Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for [four] years and taught us that Earths are everywhere," Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Center, said on a Reddit comment.
TESS will scan 85 percent of the sky. Instead of looking at 3,000 light-years away like Kepler, it will focus on 200,000 stars that are a tenth of a distance from Earth.
Project manager Jeff Volosin explained that TESS's ability to swing closer to the planet will allow astronomers to send more data to Earth than Kepler did.
The TESS launch is in time with the conclusion of the K2 mission, the successor of the first Kepler spacecraft that was launched in 2009.