The planned launch of Falcon 9 with NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

The planned launch of Falcon 9 with NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

"One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an astronomer finds a planet in a star's habitable zone, will it be interesting from a biologist's point of view?" said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The NASA-funded spaceship is not larger than a refrigerator and has four cameras that were designed, conceived, and built at MIT, with a single wide-eyed vision, which is to survey the nearest and brightest stars in the sky for the signs of passing planets.

"We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars", he said.

NASA Astrophysics director Paul Hertz has said TESS will up the ante for planet research once it reaches orbit.

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"Humans have wondered forever whether we were alone in the universe, and until 25 years ago, the only planets we knew about were the eight in our own solar system", he told reporters on the eve of the TESS launch. Scientists expect to discover thousands of planets that, over time, will undergo further scrutiny by powerful telescopes in space and on Earth.

TESS is designed as a follow-on to the U.S. space agency's Kepler spacecraft, which was the first of its kind and launched in 2009.

The satellite is continuing the mission of the Kepler spacecraft, which found more than 2,000 new exoplanets. The mission is expected to catalog thousands of planet candidates and vastly increase the current number of known exoplanets.

JOB: Tess will scan nearly the entire sky during its $337 million mission, staring at hundreds of thousands, even millions of small, faint red dwarf stars.

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TESS' mission will focus on closer, brighter stars, which means scientists will be able to learn a lot more about the composition of any exoplanets it detects.

TESS uses the same method as Kepler for finding potential planets, by tracking the dimming of light when a celestial body passes in front of a star.

"TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds whose properties can be probed by NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and other missions", he added.

Fortunately, its successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is waiting in the wings.

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By focusing on planets dozens to hundreds of light-years way, TESS may enable future breakthroughs, he said.

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