NASA launches planet-hunting spacecraft to find exoplanets

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The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) spacecraft blasted off last night on a quest to find new worlds around neighbouring stars that could support life. "Watch #TESS live", NASA announced on Twitter.

The first stage of the reusable Falcon 9 landed on the "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship at about 19:02 (2302) and then the second-stage engine was cut off, making the satellite now in coast phase.

An artist's impression of NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), planet Earth (L) and the Moon (R).

NASA's TESS spacecraft is in orbit following a successful launch from Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40. TESS, which NASA calls its "newest planet-hunter", is the first such mission to ride on a Falcon 9. Since 2009, Kepler has been harvesting planets from the cosmos, spying the footprints of these alien worlds in distant starlight.

In this view from a camera mounted on the Falcon 9 rocket's second stage, NASA's TESS spacecraft separates from the vehicle, beginning its mission.

The two-year, $337 million TESS mission is created to build on the work of its predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered the bulk of some 3,700 exoplanets documented during the past 20 years and is running out of fuel. Thanks to the unmanned Kepler telescope, over 2,300 have been confirmed with thousands more candidates awaiting study. But after a few months of fuel on Board the spacecraft will end and he will not be able to carry out its scientific programme. "We know that planets in principle exist there", says Ricker, "but there's really not much more we can say other than that they exist'".

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Exoplanet Kepler-69c, as depicted by an artist.

According to the institute, Tess will detect "tiny dips" in the light from a star as orbiting planets block some of the star's light from reaching us.

TESS also will scan a larger area than Kepler, NASA officials said. TESS will search for new worlds outside our solar system for further study. TESS could find it.

For such a large undertaking, Tess is surprisingly compact and its mission relatively low-cost at $337 million. During its two-year mission, TESS will observe around 200,000 of the stars closest to Earth (The Economist).

In the first year of observation, TESS will look at the 13 southern sectors and the following year, it will look for exoplanets in the northern 13 sectors.

"The sky will become more lovely, will become more awesome" knowing there are planets orbiting the stars we see twinkling at night, said NASA's top science administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen. It can accomplish this lofty goal by dividing the sky into 13 sections and looking at each one for 27 days before moving on to the next.