On Tuesday morning at 4:02 am IST, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Dragon 9 rocket will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, barring any extraordinary weather conditions. On board will be NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS for short. This will be the Dragon 9’s first mission with a NASA payload, after it was sanctioned for such projects in February.
TESS is meant to follow up on the extraordinary work that NASA’s 2009 Kepler satellite did on the discovery of Earth-like planets or ‘exoplanet.’ In all, Kepler has discovered 2,300 exoplanets on its journey. A similar number are currently waiting confirmation from scientists to be added to the list of known exoplanets.
TESS is meant to work on the same project, but with a more specific objective. It will be observing the the brightest 200,000 stars, and the planets in their orbit, for signs of life-bearing conditions. All of these stars are within a relatively close 300 light year distance.
Bill Chaplin, the astrophysics professor at Birmingham University, is the point man on Earth who has been tasked with examining the TESS data. His calculations will help scientists evaluate the probability of life-sustaining conditions on the discovered planets, which in turn will be used as the basic focus of future programs such as 2020’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Mission scientists have declared that they hope to find 20,000 new worlds, of which at least 500 would be of similar dimensions to Earth. With future measurements in hand – coming from sources such as the aforementioned James Webb Space Telescope – scientists might be able to determine the level of gases on these exoplanets to see if they are viable alternatives to Earth.
However, before all that can happen, TESS must reach space. This is one of SpaceX’s biggest tests as the Dragon 9 prepares to launch NASA’s $200 million state-of-the-art satellite into a highly elliptical orbit that has never been attempted before. While there are fears that the Dragon 9 launch could go bad – as it did in 2015 – one person who is not worried is Stephen Rinehart.
Rinehart, TESS’s project manager at NASA’s Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center, has a bullish outlook on tonight’s launch. Talking to The Guardian, he said, “Right now, everything is a go for launch…We think we’ve got a spacecraft that is ready to kick ass once it’s up in orbit.”