Launching the planet hunter

Launching the planet hunter
SpaceX will be launching NASA’s satellite into space on April 18th, 2018. This satellite, which has been TESS, is expected to find 20,000 exoplanets after it is launched..

SpaceX will be launching NASA’s satellite into space on April 18th, 2018. This satellite is expected to find 20,000 exoplanets after it is launched.

Background

What are exoplanets?

Exoplanets are planets beyond our own solar system. Thousands have been discovered in the past two decades, mostly with NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. As of 1 April 2018, there are 3,758 confirmed planets in 2,808 systems, with 627 systems having more than one planet.

The High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS, since 2004) has discovered about a hundred exoplanets while the Kepler space telescope (since 2009) has found more than two thousand. Kepler has also detected a few thousand candidate planets.

According to Space.com, these are the two methods through which exoplanets have been discovered so far. The site notes, “Most exoplanets discovered to date have been detected using what is known as the transit method, which looks for dips in a star's brightness that suggest a planet is passing across the face of the star. Another technique, called radial velocity, looks for repeated "wobbles" in a star's movements that suggest a planet's gravitational pull is yanking it back and forth.”

SpaceX

SpaceX was the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. It was certified for military launches in 2015. The company currently flies missions to the International Space Station under a cargo resupply contract with NASA. In 2017 alone, SpaceX launched 18 crafts.

NASA

Established in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government responsible for the civilian space program. Since that time, most US space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo Moon landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle.

Analysis

On April 2018, SpaceX is set to launch NASA’s the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) into space. TESS as the satellite is called colloquially, has been designed to specifically search for exoplanets using the transit method. This satellite would cover an area 400 times larger than that covered by the Kepler mission. It is expected to find more than 20,000 exoplanets, compared to about 3800 exoplanets known at the time of its launch.

When a planet passes in front of a distant star, it dims the star’s light ever so slightly. TESS will measure these twinkles from a 13.7-day orbit that extends as far out as the distance of the Moon. This is how The Verge explained Tess’s journey once it is launched. “The satellite won’t get to its final orbit on this launch. Instead, the Falcon 9 will put TESS into a highly elliptical path around Earth first. From there, TESS will slowly adjust its orbit over the next couple of months by igniting its onboard engine multiple times. The spacecraft will even do a flyby of the Moon next month, getting a gravitational boost that will help get the vehicle to its final path around Earth. Overall, it will take about 60 days after launch for TESS to get to its intended orbit; science observations are scheduled to begin in June.”

The original launched was expected to take place on April 16th but it was delayed to April 18th due to technical reasons. Both SpaceX and NASA are expected to provide live coverage of the launch once TESS is in the air.

Assessment

Our assessment is that with the latest launch, SpaceX is once again displaying its massive ambitions in the field of space travel and exploration. Through TESS, mankind will be able to understand about the existence of planets that are hundreds maybe even thousands of light years away. Is it possible that this probe will discover an Earth-like planet with the capacity to foster life? Only time and Tess will tell.

Read more: Future of Space X

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