NASA’s groundbreaking new planet-hunting spacecraft TESS is set to launch today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Using four advanced, wide-field cameras, TESS—which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite—will scour the skies, monitoring more than 200,000 nearby stars for signs of undiscovered exoplanets. Some of these planets may lie in their star’s habitable zone and could become targets for future research missions that will be able to assess their ability to harbor life.
“TESS will search 85 percent of our sky for exoplanets orbiting bright stars and our nearest stellar neighbors,” Martin Still, NASA headquarters program scientist for TESS, told Newsweek. “It will allow us to follow up planet detections using other telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, to then better explore the properties of these planets.”
The launch is scheduled for 18.32 EDT, however, if weather conditions are unfavorable or there are technical glitches, SpaceX could delay proceedings until 18.13 on Tuesday. If there are still problems, NASA do have a launch window which extends until June 2018.
NASA will be broadcasting the launch on their online TV channel, NASA TV. There will be a program at 11.00 EDT providing an overview of the mission, followed by a pre-launch news conference at 13.30, a science news conference at 15.00 and then live coverage from Cape Canaveral between 18.00 and 20.00.
SpaceX will also be broadcasting live footage of events on their Youtube channel. Coverage will likely begin around 15-20 minutes before launch.
Over its two-year mission, TESS will hunt for exoplanets with the help of a phenomenon known as transit—where a planet passes in front of its star, causing a periodic and regular dip in brightness.
The focus of TESS’s search will be on bright stars less than 300 light years away. Their brightness will allow researchers to use spectroscopy—a technique that measures the absorption and emission of light—to determine a planet’s mass, density and atmospheric composition, which could provide insights into whether or not it harbors life.