Into an early evening perfect crystal blue sky, a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral on a planet-hunting mission which is expected to identify thousands of planets in our cosmic backyard.
Departing on April 18, the rocket carried with it the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) that is adding to the bounty provided over the past decade by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.
“The search for worlds beyond our solar system continues today with the launch of our @NASA_TESS spacecraft,” tweeted NASA after the launch.
The spacecraft is expected to peer at hundreds of thousands of bright neighboring stars, seeking planets that might support life. Scientists found the planets discovered by Kepler are too distant and too faint for practical study. But those found by TESS should be close enough for mega telescopes of the future to detect any atmospheric signs of life.
The launch was the eighth SpaceX mission of 2018 that also included a successful landing of the rocket’s first stage booster on the drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was SpaceX's 24th such recovery.
The rocket’s TESS payload separated from the rocket’s upper stage 49 minutes after liftoff, placing TESS into a highly elliptical orbit. The spacecraft will use its own propulsion to move into its final orbit, a stable high Earth orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the moon, by mid-June.
Built and designed by Orbital ATK, the satellite carries four ultra-sensitive wide-field cameras that will monitor the brightness of more than 200,000 stars' less than 300 light-years away. Over two years, four cameras will detect the faintest of shadows as planets — ranging from Earth-like rocky ones to gas giants — cross, or transit, their host stars.
The same approach has been used by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, launched in 2009. However, Kepler’s prime mission focused on a single small area of the sky, while TESS will scan the entire sky, focusing in particular on nearby bright stars that could be targets for follow-up observations by ground- and space-based telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope.
NASA says the satellite will begin its initial two-year mission 60 days after launch. the four wide-field cameras will give TESS a field-of-view that covers 85 percent of our entire sky. It’s a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT and managed by Goddard Space Flight Center.
At only 800 pounds, TESS is a fraction of the weight Falcon 9 can lift into orbit. NASA awarded SpaceX the contract to launch TESS into orbit above the Earth at a cost of $87 million.
“TESS forms kind of a bridge between what we’ve learned about exoplanets to date and where we’re headed in the future,” said Jeff Volosin, TESS project manager at Goddard, at the pre-launch press conference. “That’s a big part of our mission: to enable future exploration by providing a giant dataset all over the sky of where these exoplanets are.”
While the Falcon 9's lower stage landed on the drone ship, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the rocket's upper stage on this mission, as that part of the rocket is not expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. CEO Elon Musk floated an idea for upper stage recovery of his F 9 rockets saying his company would bring its upper stage "back from orbital velocity using a giant party balloon."
Musk wants to slow the upper stage down during reentry and target a landing aboard a "catcher ship" like the boat, known as Mr. Steven, that SpaceX is using to attempt fairing recoveries in the Pacific Ocean.
It's been a busy few weeks for SpaceX, which launched its 14th resupply mission to the International Space Station on April 2, sending a reused cargo ship packed with supplies and equipment to the orbiting lab.