Tag: TESS

NASA’s Revolutionary Planet-Hunting Telescope Kepler Runs Out of Fuel

NASA’s prolific Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel, agency officials announced on Oct. 30, 2018. The planet-hunting space telescope discovered thousands of alien worlds around distant stars since its launch in 2009.

The most prolific planet-hunting machine in history has signed off.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has discovered 70 percent of the 3,800 confirmed alien worlds to date, has run out of fuel, agency officials announced last October 30.

Kepler can no longer reorient itself to study cosmic objects or beam its data home to Earth, so the legendary instrument’s in-space work is done after nearly a decade.

And that work has been transformative.

“Kepler has taught us that planets are ubiquitous and incredibly diverse,” Kepler project scientist Jessie Dotson, who’s based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California said.




“It’s changed how we look at the night sky.”

The announcement was not unexpected. Kepler has been running low on fuel for months, and mission managers put the spacecraft to sleep several times recently to extend its operational life as much as possible.

But the end couldn’t be forestalled forever; Kepler’s tank finally went dry two weeks ago, mission team members said during a telecon with reporters today.

This marks the end of spacecraft operations for Kepler, and the end of the collection of science data,” Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said during the telecon.

Prepping the Kepler spacecraft pre-launch in 2009.

Even though Kepler has closed its eyes, discoveries from the mission should keep rolling in for years to come.

About 2,900 “candidate” exoplanets detected by the spacecraft still need to be vetted, and most of those should end up being the real deal, Kepler team members have said.

A lot of other data still needs to be analyzed as well, Dotson stressed.

And Kepler will continue to live on in the exoplanet revolution it helped spark.

For example, in April, NASA launched a new spacecraft called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is hunting for alien worlds circling stars that lie relatively close to the sun (using the transit method, just like Kepler).

Kepler’s death “is not the end of an era,” Kepler system engineer Charlie Sobeck, also of NASA Ames said. “It’s an occasion to mark, but it’s not an end.”

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NASA’s TESS Shares First Science Image in Hunt to Find New Worlds

NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is now providing valuable data to help scientists discover and study exciting new exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system.

Part of the data from TESS’ initial science orbit includes a detailed picture of the southern sky taken with all four of the spacecraft’s wide-field cameras.

This “first light” science image captures a wealth of stars and other objects, including systems previously known to have exoplanets.

In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.

TESS acquired the image using all four cameras during a 30-minute period on Tuesday, Aug. 7. The black lines in the image are gaps between the camera detectors.

The images include parts of a dozen constellations, from Capricornus to Pictor, and both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the galaxies nearest to our own.

The small bright dot above the Small Magellanic Cloud is a globular cluster — a spherical collection of hundreds of thousands of stars — called NGC 104, also known as 47 Tucanae because of its location in the southern constellation Tucana, the Toucan.




Two stars, Beta Gruis and R Doradus, are so bright they saturate an entire column of pixels on the detectors of TESS’s second and fourth cameras, creating long spikes of light.

This swath of the sky’s southern hemisphere includes more than a dozen stars we know have transiting planets based on previous studies from ground observatories,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge.

TESS’s cameras, designed and built by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, and the MIT Kavli Institute, monitor large swaths of the sky to look for transits.

Transits occur when a planet passes in front of its star as viewed from the satellite’s perspective, causing a regular dip in the star’s brightness.

TESS will spend two years monitoring 26 such sectors for 27 days each, covering 85 percent of the sky. During its first year of operations, the satellite will study the 13 sectors making up the southern sky.

Then TESS will turn to the 13 sectors of the northern sky to carry out a second year-long survey.

MIT coordinates with Northrop Grumman in Falls Church, Virginia, to schedule science observations. TESS transmits images every 13.7 days, each time it swings closest to Earth.

NASA’s Deep Space Network receives and forwards the data to the TESS Payload Operations Center at MIT for initial evaluation and analysis.

Full data processing and analysis takes place within the Science Processing and Operations Center pipeline at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, which provides calibrated images and refined light curves that scientists can analyze to find promising exoplanet transit candidates.

TESS builds on the legacy of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which also uses transits to find exoplanets. TESS’s target stars are 30 to 300 light-years away and about 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s targets, which are 300 to 3,000 light-years away.

The brightness of TESS’ targets make them ideal candidates for follow-up study with spectroscopy, the study of how matter and light interact.

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NASA’s New Planet Hunter Has Already Spotted Two Candidates For Earth-Like Alien Worlds

 

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has only been on the job less than two months, and already it’s ponying up the planet goods.

The exoplanet-hunting space telescope has found two candidate planets, and there are plenty more on the horizon.

The two candidate planets are called Pi Mensae c, orbiting bright yellow dwarf star Pi Mensae, just under 60 light-years from Earth; and LHS 3844 b, orbiting red dwarf star LHS 3844, just under 49 light-years away.

TESS took its first test observations on July 25 (and managed to get some pretty great snaps of a passing comet), and its first official science observations began on August 7.

However, it was observing a large swathe of sky from the moment it opened its eyes – four optical cameras – and both discoveries are based on data from July 25 to August 22.

So far, they are only candidate planets, yet to be validated by the final review process. If they pass that test, they’ll go down in history as TESS’s first two discoveries. Here’s what we know so far about them.

Both planets appear to be Earth-like and rocky, but neither is habitable according to our guidelines – both are too close to their stars for liquid water.

Pi Mensae c, the first planet announced, is a super-Earth, clocking in at just over twice the size of Earth. It’s really close to Pi Mensae – it orbits the star in just 6.27 days.




A preliminary analysis indicates that the planet has a rocky iron core, and also contains a substantial proportion of lighter materials such as water, methane, hydrogen and helium – although we’ll need a more detailed survey to confirm that.

It also has a sibling – it’s not the first object to be found orbiting Pi Mensae. That honour goes to Pi Mensae b, an enormous planet with 10 times the mass of Jupiter discovered in 2001.

It’s much farther out than Pi Mensae c, on an orbit of 2,083 days. LHS 3844 b is a little bit smaller, classified as a “hot Earth“.

It’s just over 1.3 times the size of Earth, and on an incredibly tight orbit of just 11 hours. Since the two are so close together, it’s highly likely the planet is blasted with too much stellar radiation to retain an atmosphere.

TESS does need a bit of time to collect enough data for identifying an exoplanet.

Like its predecessor Kepler, it uses what is known as the transit method for detection – scanning and photographing a region of the sky multiple times, looking for changes in the brightness of stars in its field of view.

When a star dims repeatedly and regularly, that is a good indication that a planet is passing between it and TESS.

By using the amount the light dims, and Doppler spectroscopy – that is, changes in the star’s light as it moves ever-so-slightly backwards and forwards due to the gravitational tug on the planet – astronomers can infer details about the planet, such as its size and mass.

 

Using this method, Kepler has discovered 2,652 confirmed planets to date between its first and second missions, located between 300 to 3,000 light-years away.

Kepler is still operational, but barely; it’s only a matter of time until it completely runs out of fuel.

TESS’s search is happening a lot closer, with targets between 30 and 300 light-years away – stars brighter than those observed by Kepler.

Thus, the exoplanets it identifies will be strong candidates to observe using spectroscopy, the analysis of light.

When a planet passes in front of a star, it has an effect on the light from the star, changing it based on the composition of its atmosphere (if it has one).

Ground-based observatories and the James Webb Space Telescope (once it launches in 2021) will have to make those follow-up observations.

Both papers are available on preprint resource arXiv. Pi Mensa c can be found here, and LHS 3844 b can be found here.

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SpaceX Blasts Off NASA’s New Spacecraft On Quest To Find New Planets

NASA’s TESS spacecraft embarked Wednesday on a quest to find new worlds around neighboring stars that could support life.

TESS rode a SpaceX Falcon rocket through the evening sky, aiming for an orbit stretching all the way to the moon.

The satellite — the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or Tess — will scan almost the entire sky for at least two years, starting at the closest, brightest stars in an effort to find and identify any planets around them.

Hundreds of thousands of stars will be scrutinized, with the expectation that thousands of exoplanets — planets outside our own solar system — will be revealed right in our cosmic backyard.

Rocky and icy planets, hot gas giants and, possibly, water worlds. Super-Earths between the sizes of Earth and Neptune. Maybe even an Earth twin.

Discoveries by Tess and other missions, he noted, will bring us closer to answering questions that have lingered for thousands of years.




Does life exist beyond Earth? If so, is it microbial or more advanced? But Tess won’t look for life.

It’s not designed for that. Rather, it will scout for planets of all sorts, but especially those in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone of a star: an orbit where temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot, but just right for life-nourishing water.

The most promising candidates will be studied by bigger, more powerful observatories of the future, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in another few years as the heir to Hubble.

These telescopes will scour the planets’ atmospheres for any of the ingredients of life: water vapor, oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide.

TESS is the successor to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, on its last legs after discovering a few thousand exoplanets over the past nine years.

Astronomers anticipate more than doubling Kepler’s confirmed planetary count of more than 2,600, once Tess’ four wide-view cameras begin scientific observations in early summer.

Unlike Tess, Kepler could only scour a sliver of the sky.

The total exoplanet census currently stands at more than 3,700 confirmed, with another 4,500 on the not-yet-verified list. That’s a lot considering the first one popped up barely two decades ago.

Until about 25 years ago, the only known planets were in our own solar system, noted NASA’s director of astrophysics, Paul Hertz.

While Kepler has focused on stars thousands of light-years away, Tess will concentrate on our stellar neighbors, dozens or hundreds of light-years away.

Most of TESS’ targets will be cool, common red dwarf stars, thought to be rich breeding grounds for planets.

To find the planets, Tess will use the same transit method employed by Kepler, watching for regular, fleeting dips in stellar brightness that would indicate a planet passing in front of its star. That’s the best astronomers can do for now.

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NASA’s Planet-Hunting TESS Telescope Launches Today Aboard A SpaceX Rocket

Some of the most exciting space news of the past few years has been about Earth-like exoplanets that could one day (or perhaps already do) support life. TESS, a space telescope set to launch today aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

It will scan the sky for exoplanets faster and better than any existing platforms, expanding our knowledge of the universe and perhaps finding a friendly neighborhood to move to.

The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite has been in the works for years and in a way could be considered a sort of direct successor to the Kepler, the incredibly fruitful mission that has located thousands of exoplanets over nearly a decade.

But if Kepler was a telephoto aimed at dim targets far in the distance, TESS is an ultra-wide-angle lens that will watch nearly the entire visible sky.

They both work on the same principle, which is really quite simple: when a planet (or anything else) passes between us and a star (a “transit”), the brightness of that star temporarily dims.

By tracking how much dimmer and for how long over multiple transits, scientists can determine the size, speed, and other characteristics of the body that passed by.




It may seem like looking for a needle in a haystack, watching the sky hoping a planet will pass by at just the right moment.

But when you think about the sheer number of stars in the sky — and by the way, planets outnumber them — it’s not so crazy.

As evidence of this fact, in 2016 Kepler confirmed the presence of 1,284 new planets just in the tiny patch of sky it was looking at.

TESS will watch for the same thing with a much, much broader perspective.

Its camera array has four 16.4-megapixel imaging units, each covering a square of sky 24 degrees across, making for a tall “segment” of the sky like a long Tetris block.

The satellite will spend full 13.7-day orbits observing a segment, then move on to the next one.

There are 13 such segments in the sky’s Northern hemisphere and 13 in the southern; by the time TESS has focused on them all, it will have checked 85 percent of the visible sky.

It will be focusing on the brightest stars in our neighborhood: less than 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times as bright as the ones Kepler was looking at.

The more light, the more data, and often the less noise — researchers will be able to tell more about stars that are observed, and if necessary dedicate other ground or space resources towards observing them.

Of course, with such close and continuous scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of stars, other interesting behaviors may be observed and passed on to the right mission or observatory.

Stars flaring or going supernova, bursts of interesting radiation, and other events could very well occur.

In fact, an overlapping area of observation above each of Earth’s poles will be seen for a whole year straight, increasing the likelihood of catching some rare phenomenon.

SpaceX is the launch partner, and the Falcon 9 rocket on which it will ride into orbit has already been test fired. TESS is packaged up and ready to go, as you see at right.

Currently the launch is planned for a 30-second window at 6:32 Florida time; if for some reason they miss that window, they’ll have to wait until the moon comes round again — a March 20 launch was already canceled.

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NASA’s Exoplanet-Hunter TESS Gets Prepped For Launch

Final preparations are underway here at Kennedy Space Center to get NASA’s next planet-hunting spacecraft, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), ready for its planned April 16 launch.

The satellite, built by Orbital ATK, arrived here on Feb, 12 after a 17-hour drive down from Orbital’s facility in Dulles, Virginia, and was ushered inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) to be readied for launch.

However, before it hitches a ride to space atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, NASA invited members of the media to get a close-up look at TESS inside a specialized clean room.

The PHSF is one of the last stops a spacecraft makes before launch. Inside this unique facility, engineers conduct final tests and load hazardous fuels, such as hydrazine that will help propel the spacecraft.

Therefore, anyone who enters must follow a strict protocol, including wearing a special suit known as a bunny suit.




Before entering the clean room, a group of eager journalists were regaled with mission specifics by the TESS team, which included the mission’s principal investigator, George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

The TESS mission, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will spend at least two years studying more than 200,000 of the closest and brightest stars in our solar neighborhood.

TESS will scan the sky, looking for tiny dips in starlight. These dips in brightness — known as transits — could indicate that one or more planets is orbiting the star.

Ricker said that the team expects to discover several thousand planets during the spacecraft’s mission.

The Kepler Space Telescope, NASA’s planet-hunting powerhouse, has identified more than 2,000 confirmed exoplanets using the same “transit” technique as TESS.

However, TESS has a much larger field of view — nearly 20 times larger than Kepler — potentially allowing it to surpass Kepler in the number of exoplanet discoveries.

Thanks to Kepler, we now know that planets around other stars are very common. Kepler spent its primary mission staring at a narrow patch of sky to answer that very question.

Unfortunately, all of Kepler’s discoveries are too far away for follow-up study.

Scheduled to launch next year, Webb will scan the targets identified by TESS to look for water vapor, methane and other atmospheric gases. And, with a little luck, Webb might even spot signatures indicative of life beyond Earth.

TESS will launch into a high, elliptical orbit around Earth that is in a 2:1 resonance with the moon — it will orbit twice for every one time the moon goes all the way around.

This type of orbit has multiple benefits: it is very stable, meaning it won’t be affected by space debris, radiation, while allowing the spacecraft to easily communicate with the ground.

However, this type of orbit limits the number of launch opportunities, as it must be synchronized with the moon’s orbit around the Earth. After launch, it will take the spacecraft two months to reach its destination.

During our visit, engineers were prepping the spacecraft for final testing before launch. That testing included final checkouts of the solar arrays and is expected to be completed February 21.

Next, TESS will be mated to the launch vehicle.

Originally slated to launch on March 20, TESS is currently scheduled to lift off on April 16, following a one-month delay requested by the launch provider, SpaceX. However, TESS must launch by June per congressional mandate.

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