SpaceX launches NASA's Planet Hunter probe, April 18, 2018

Our favorite new NASA mission - called TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite - launched to space at 6:51 p.m. ET on Wednesday, and the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the satellite landed back on Earth on a drone ship in the Atlantic not long after. "Watch #TESS live", NASA announced on Twitter.

Hundreds of thousands of stars will be examined and thousands of exoplanets - planets outside our own solar system - are expected be revealed right in our cosmic backyard. It's the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research. Over the past decade it has been a powerhouse of discovery, finding over 2000 confirmed new planets, including many that could potentially harbour life.

On March 30, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket successfully launched 10 next-generation satellites out of California.

With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe. "So mass and size together give us an average planet density, which tells us a huge amount about what the planet is".

Even if Kepler did have a longer life span, more exoplanets are always better. TESS will monitor thousands of stars simultaneously for such "transits", watching a single section of sky for a month straight before moving on to another.

TESS will survey an area 400 times larger than what Kepler observed.

TESS will also pave the way for followup observations of the planets it finds. TESS could find it.

But Kepler's job was to stare at 150,000 distant stars in a small region of the Milky Way, while TESS will look much closer to home.

The goal will be to spot a winking in the stars as proof of "transit", which is the moment when a planet passes the star, creating a dip in brightness. As it zooms around Earth, the spacecraft will be using four cameras to gaze at a whopping 85 percent of the sky, focusing on particular stars for 27 days at most.

'The sky will become more handsome, will become more awesome, knowing there are planets orbiting the stars we see twinkling at night, said NASA's top science administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen.

Why do we care about these types of planets?

Does life exist beyond Earth?

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that TESS will scan almost the entire sky for alien worlds.

The fully integrated Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

How does that work, exactly?

Whenever he approaches Earth, he will send scientists the information he has collected in the meantime.

"We're going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets".

"The seek out worlds beyond our solar method continues today with the introduction of the space craft", tweeted NASA on Wednesday afternoon.

  • Joey Payne