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NASA’s Next Planet Hunter Launch Delayed


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NASA's TESS space telescope will look for "cosmic winks" as a sign of planets outside our solar system. Photo: NASA

NASA’s next planet-hunting satellite will have to wait another 48 hours before launching into space.

SpaceX scrubbed the launch Monday afternoon. Engineers want to take a closer look at the rocket’s guidance, navigation and control systems. Another launch opportunity opens Wednesday at 6:51 p.m. from Cape Canaveral.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS for short, will look for exoplanets — planets outside our solar system.

It will do this by looking for a cosmic wink. TESS will focus its four cameras on a patch of the sky. When a planet passes in between the telescope and a nearby star, the planet will causes the star’s light to dim. TESS measures this drop in light, called a transit, and scientists can use the data to confirm if it’s a planet, its relative size and what it might be made of.

They hope to find other Earth like planets – ones that may contain water or a rocky surface. Florida Tech’s Dan Batcheldor said the mission is another step closer to answering the age old question: Are we alone in the universe?

“It used to be a philosophical question but now we’ve developed the technology where it’s a scientific question,” said Batcheldor. “When you’re now approaching the question of are we along in the universe you’ve suddenly got a whole treasure chest of planets that could be in the position to support life.”

It’s not the first space telescope to hunt for exoplanets. The Kepler space telescope has been looking for these cosmic winks for a few years and it helped identify thousands of planet candidates. A handful of Kepler exoplanets might be like our own Earth. The Kepler telescope stared at one spot in the sky. TESS is going to survey the entire sky looking at stars closer to our planet. Mission managers estimate there will be on the order of tens of thousands of new planets discovered.

Deputy Science Manager and MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager said the data from TESS will be made public and scientists around the globe and citizen scientist at home can comb through the data to identify planet candidates.

“My biggest hope is that we do find planets with signs of life on them with liquid water oceans,” said Seager. “All life as we know it needs water so that’s a good place to start, and some of those rocky planets that have liquid water oceans also have gasses in their atmospheres that don’t belong that could be attributed to life.”

TESS won’t be able to find life outside our planet by itself. Space telescopes like TESS and Kepler are just the start for the hunt for planets that might have signs of life. Unfortunately, we can’t really see them, we just know they are there. But data from TESS can be used for future space telescope missions like the James Webb Space Telescope.

Physicists like Dan Batcheldor are working on the technology needed to actually take a picture of one of these planets. Florida Tech has an experiment on the International Space Station testing hardware that may one day take the first photograph on an exoplanet.

LISTEN: 90.7’s Brendan Byrne explains star winks and the hunt for alien worlds. Click the media player above. 


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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Intersection' Producer

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts "Are We There Yet?", WMFE's space exploration podcast He also helps produce WMFE's twice-weekly public affairs show "Intersection," working with host Matthew Peddie to shape the ... Read Full Bio »

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