A new era of exoplanet research has officially begun. NASA’s newest planet hunter, called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has taken its first science image – a panorama of the southern sky, including the Magellanic clouds and a few stars that are already known to have exoplanets.
The complete "first light" photograph was taken using all four of TESS's cameras during a 30-minute period on August 7. TESS can detect subtle variations of light from distant stars, which hint at the possibility of planets blocking a bit of light as they move in front of the stellar disk.
“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”
TESS follows in the footstep of its predecessor, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which was also designed to spot transiting exoplanets. TESS will look at closer and brighter stars than the Kepler spacecraft. The stars TESS will look at are between 30 and 300 light-years away, a range 10 times closer than Kepler's targets, and they will be between 30 and 100 times brighter. Approximately 500,000 stars will be studied, with the telescope expected to discover more than 20,000 exoplanets, including between 500 and 1,000 Earth-sized and super-Earth objects.
The system is designed to take exposures of the sky for up to two hours, so researchers expect that other phenomena will also be snapped while the telescope completes its all-sky survey. This includes potentially seeing visible light counterparts to gamma-ray bursts as well as other transient events. The mission has also got a Guest Investigator Program, which allows scientists to use the satellite for specific research.
“We were very pleased with the number of guest investigator proposals we received, and we competitively selected programs for a wide range of science investigations, from studying distant active galaxies to asteroids in our own solar system,” said Padi Boyd, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “And of course, lots of exciting exoplanet and star proposals as well. The science community are chomping at the bit to see the amazing data that TESS will produce and the exciting science discoveries for exoplanets and beyond.”
TESS began collecting data on July 25. In its first year, it will observe the southern sky, and in its second year, it will map the northern sky.