Magazine article Newsweek

NASA'S TESS Satellite Could Find Planet Hosting Life by 2020; TESS Stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and Its Mission Is to Identify Planets Orbiting the Brightest Stars in Our Neighborhood of the Universe

Magazine article Newsweek

NASA'S TESS Satellite Could Find Planet Hosting Life by 2020; TESS Stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and Its Mission Is to Identify Planets Orbiting the Brightest Stars in Our Neighborhood of the Universe

Article excerpt

Byline: Jessica Wapner

The excitement among those gathered for the launch of TESS, NASA's latest sky watcher, on April 18 was understandable. Equipped with four telescopes, the satellite will orbit for two years, taking pictures of more than 200,000 stars, dozens within 10 light-years of Earth. Sara Seager, deputy director of science for the mission, watched with her family from Cape Canaveral that day, knowing exactly what was at stake. "It is fair to say that TESS will be finding a whole bunch of planets in the habitable zone," she says. In plain English: We might just find a planet hosting life by 2020.

TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and its mission is to identify planets orbiting the brightest stars in our neighborhood of the universe. When the orbit of a planet takes it between its sun and TESS's cameras, the light from the star is temporarily dimmed, like an airplane blocking a bit of sunlight as it flies past. Back on Earth, astronomers reading TESS's data know that those minor fluctuations signal the presence of a planet. They can then direct more powerful instruments--the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2020--for a closer look. "TESS," says Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA, "takes us from knowing there are exoplanets to studying them."

The mission won't catch every planet. Those with orbits that are either longer than a month or not angled just right won't dim their stars for the cameras. …

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