On its way to look for worlds beyond the Solar System, NASA's newest spacecraft devoted to looking for planets has taken a rather incredible test image.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched on April 18, flew past the Moon on Thursday, May 17 at a distance of about 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles). And in the process, it tested out one of its four cameras.
This produced the image you see below, which contains a whopping 200,000 stars. This was a 2-second exposure, which serves as a pretty good reminder of how many stars are in the night sky.
In the image you can see the edge of the Coalsack Nebula in the right upper corner, which is located 600 light-years from Earth. Towards the bottom of the image that bright star you can see is a triple-star system called Beta Centauri, 390 light-years from Earth.
"As part of camera commissioning, the science team snapped a two-second test exposure using one of the four TESS cameras," said NASA. "The image, centered on the southern constellation Centaurus, reveals more than 200,000 stars."
TESS was flying past the Moon to get a gravity boost on its way to its final unusual orbit, which will give it a view of the entire sky. In total, TESS is expected to study an area that’s about 400 times larger than the image above.
In early June, the spacecraft will take a science-quality test image of the night sky, with science operations expected to begin about mid-June. It’s hoped that TESS will find about 20,000 planets beyond the Solar System, or exoplanets, focusing on stars 30 to 300 light-years from Earth.
It will find planets by monitoring the dip in a star’s light as a planet passes in front, known as the transit method. Most of the planets it finds will be large, either gas giants or super-Earths, but a few hundred will be less than twice the size of Earth and possibly rocky.
TESS will build upon the work of NASA’s existing planet-hunter, Kepler, to further our understanding of exoplanets like never before. And if this image is anything to go by, we’re in for quite a wild ride.