A behind-the-scenes look at the SpaceX launch of NASA’s TESS Mission!

A behind-the-scenes look at the SpaceX launch of NASA’s TESS Mission!

Since its launch in 1990 (and a corrective servicing mission in 1993), the Hubble Space Telescope has inspired humanity to look deeper and further into space than ever before. Hubble has connected all of us by instilling a sense of awe and wonder with every new image it sends down to us. The images have been incredible. We’ve peered deeper into space than any terrestrial observatory possibly could. We’ve seen gorgeous nebulae, and by looking at non-visible light, were able to look inside to literally see stars being born, teaching us more than we ever knew about how our own solar system was formed.

The Eagle Nebula. The left shows visible light, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The right is infrared light, which is otherwise not visible to humans. This allows us to see through the dust and gasses surrounding young stars that are still in the process of forming. Credit: NASA

And by looking at a seemingly “empty” patch of space, the Hubble Space Telescope showed us just how not empty it was, with the Hubble Deep Field.

What we found was certainly unexpected:

Credit: NASA

The image above shows hundreds and hundreds of galaxies in what we originally thought was “empty” space. The most distant galaxies in this image are 13.2 billion (with a “B”) light years away, meaning this image takes us back to just 500 million years after the Big Bang created our universe.

But Hubble has spoiled us to a certain extent. Sure, the images are gorgeous and the science it’s provided us is incredible, but the general public has become rather complacent about space, for the most part. It’s almost a feeling of “Oh, that’s cool… But what now?” for some.

Well, in just a few months, we will know what that next step is. And within a couple years, we may have adequate evidence to conclusively state that life on Earth is not the only life that exists in the universe.

The TESS Mission

On April 18th, NASA launched the TESS Mission on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. I happened to apply for the NASA Social for the launch, and out of the 400 applicants, I was one of the 40 social media personalities selected to attend. It was a truly incredible experience, and I cannot thank NASA enough for the opportunity! I tried to make the most of it, and was totally serious the entire time. I didn’t make a single joke at all and was completely professional with all my posts on social media.

… And that one. (Full disclosure: if NASA had faked the landing, WHICH THEY ABSOLUTELY DID NOT, Swamp Works is where it would have happened. It’s where the Lunar Rover was made, and it was field tested just outside the facility. We saw a lunar dust simulator that tests a tool’s ability to function in a high-dust environment, a gas-powered drone that is under development for solar system exploration, and a machine that will potentially 3D print structures for the Moon or Mars, but there was zero evidence of stage lighting or cameras. They wouldn’t let us take pictures inside Swamp Works, unfortunately. BUT – I am *more* than happy to go back to NASA for another tour to see what additional research I can do, though. For a more detailed account of my behind-the-scenes tour at NASA, including tons of pictures, check out my post here: A Science Enthusiast goes behind-the-scenes at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center!)

Ahem.

TESS stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. An exoplanet is a planet that is outside of our solar system. TESS will detect these planets by looking for temporary dips in the star’s brightness. You can think of it as a partial planetary eclipse on a cosmic scale.

The lead institution for TESS is Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Principal Investigator is George Ricker. In my tweet above, you’ll see TESS getting some finishing touches before it was packed up and loaded on top of a rocket.

Once active, TESS will take pictures of hundreds of thousands of stars, so scientists know what  each star should look like. However, as the planet crosses in front of the star, TESS will detect a slight dip in the star’s brightness that can only be caused by a planet blocking part of the light. TESS will continue observing stars like this throughout its mission, allowing scientists on Earth to determine things like size, mass, distance from the star (and therefore the amount of heat the planet has), and the orbital period (how long it takes the planet to orbit the star) by comparing the “normal” light coming from the star to times where there is a planet blocking some of the light as it is transiting the star.

If only it were this simple...

In reality, the dip in light is much, MUCH harder to detect. The expected dimming is approximately 0.25% of the star’s brightness. TESS can actually measure this difference though, as TESS is essentially taking a “movie” of the sky, given its enormous field of view, giving it an incredible amount of information.

Given the amount of data TESS will be capturing (about 19 gigabytes of images during each observation period) scientists will have a heck of a time sorting through all the data to find exoplanets. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that because NASA is a publicly-funded agency, the data they gather has to be made public. And because of this, it gives the general public an opportunity to assist NASA/MIT in finding planets in other stellar systems!

This creates an incredible opportunity for citizen scientists to potentially find habitable planets outside of our Solar System that may support life as we know it. The very thought of this possibility gives me goosebumps.

But didn’t they already do this with Kepler?

You bet they did! As of this writing, there are 2343 confirmed exoplanets that Kepler has detected. That sounds like an awful lot until you look at the area in which Kepler looked at, compared to what TESS will do:

Blue dots are exoplanets discovered by Kepler. Gray dots are exoplanets found by other missions. Orange dots are exoplanets that NASA/MIT expect to locate with TESS. Credit: Zach Berta-Thompson

TESS will cover 85% of the sky compared to Kepler’s 0.25%, and will focus on stars that are 30 to 100 times brighter than the stars Kepler focused on. Additionally, the stars will be 10 times closer than the stars Kepler focused on. This is because Kepler used a “pencil beam” method to look deep into a single patch of the sky, compared to the 90 degree wide-angle view TESS will have.

And because of the unique orbit TESS will have, going slightly farther away from Earth than the Moon is, it will have 500,000 times the field of view as the Hubble Space Telescope.

The launch of TESS

The launch was originally scheduled for April 16th, but was delayed for 48 hours. The official reason was for “Guidance and Navigation Control analysis.”

According to my source, there was a concern from staff at SpaceX that the fuel loaded into TESS would slosh around during launch, making the trajectory unpredictable, according to their computer models. After taking the rocket from vertical to horizontal, the concern was resolved and the launch proceeded on April 18th. We were fortunate to have prime viewing for the launch from the NASA Causeway, approximately 4 miles from the launch site.

Here’s a picture I took of the launch. You can find more at my full behind-the-scenes post, or check out my new photography Instagram at @aSciEnthusiast.foto (and my other IG: @aSciEnthusiast).

I also live streamed the launch to Facebook, where you can get a true feeling for how powerful the rocket is. I knew there’d be a sound delay, but I didn’t expect it to take as long as it did!

Okay, but what’s the point of TESS?

The measure of success for TESS is to locate new exoplanets by monitoring 200,000 stars. The goal is to find new Earth-like or “super Earth” sized planets that are habitable for life as we know it. The data TESS provides will allow for ground-based telescopes to do observations of these stars to get additional data as well.

Additionally, thanks to the orbit and it’s enormous field of view, TESS is optimized to continually capture of data in the area of sky that the James Webb Space Telescope will have continuous viewing of, once it’s launched.

What this means is that there will be more, and better, planetary candidates for the JWST to look at in these areas, regardless of the position of the Earth in its orbit around the sun. The James Webb Space Telescope will be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. In a sense, TESS can be thought of as a coarse brush that finds exoplanets, and JWST will be the fine-tooth comb that collects even more data about previously unknown worlds.

The Hubble Space Telescope inspired an entire generation, myself included, to be curious about space and have an interest in science. It continues to do so to this day. I can only imagine what further insights TESS and the JWST will give us into how our universe works, where we came from, and how life formed on Earth.

For a more detailed account of my behind-the-scenes tour at NASA, including tons of pictures, check out my post here: A Science Enthusiast goes behind-the-scenes at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center!

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