Monday, July 16, 2018
News Roundup

TESS, NASA’s newest planet hunter, will launch Monday night - if all goes well

At the moment when NASA’s newest planet hunter launches, scheduled for Monday evening, astronomers will know of nearly 4,000 alien worlds outside our solar system.

When the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite completes its mission two years from now, scientists expect, TESS will have increased that number by a factor of five. Among the new discoveries, they hope, will be a rocky world with an atmosphere that can be probed for signs of life.

"This is opening an entirely new window on the universe," said MIT astrophysicist George Ricker, the principal investigator for the mission.

The satellite is slated to lift off from Kennedy Space Center around 6:32 p.m. Monday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The launch will be aired on NASA TV.

MEET TESS: NASA’s new seeker of alien worlds

TESS should arrive in orbit around Earth — on a never-before-used, highly elliptical path that takes it close to the moon — about two months later. It will begin science operations shortly after that.

TESS is intended as a high-powered successor to the Kepler space telescope, which has orbited the sun alongside the Earth for the past 10 years and detected most of the exoplanets currently known to science.

"Kepler broke open the field in a rather dramatic way," Ricker said — demonstrating that for every star in the sky, there are untold numbers of exoplanets waiting to be found.

But now it’s time to pass the torch.

Unlike Kepler, which peered deep into a narrow stretch of sky to find faraway planets around stars like the sun, TESS’s survey will be "wide and shallow," Ricker explained. It is designed to look stars of all ages and sizes within a few hundred light-years of Earth, and it will be able to canvass the entire sky in just two years.

Armed with four sensitive cameras, the refrigerator-sized satellite will seek out the tiny, telltale dips in a star’s light that occur when a planet "transits," or passes in front of it. The frequency of each faint flicker will indicate the planet’s size and its distance from the star.

Next, astronomers on Earth will measure the way the planet’s gravity makes the star wobble as it orbits - an observation that will provide the planet’s mass. Combined, those data will help scientists characterize the planet: Is it a small, rocky world like Earth? Is it light and water-rich? Does it have a solid surface, or does it resemble Neptune, with a dense core surrounded by swirling clouds of gas?

The TESS mission coincides with the debut of powerful new ground- and space-based observatories, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2020. If a TESS planet has an atmosphere, these instruments may be able to sense the way it alters the starlight that filters through it. That research could reveal "biosignatures" — molecules including oxygen and methane that are often generated by living organisms.

"This is the reason we’re all so excited," said Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at Caltech and NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute who sits on the steering committee for TESS’s follow-up working group. Unlike Kepler’s discoveries, the planets found by TESS will orbit stars nearby and bright enough to allow for detailed characterization.

"We have this whole army of observatories and astronomers on the ground waiting eagerly to be told, ‘Here’s a candidate,’" she said.

It is unlikely that JWST or any other existing telescope would be capable of detecting biosignatures on an exoplanet as small as Earth. For that, astronomers must await missions that are still in their concept phase, and will not launch for nearly two decades.

But even if TESS doesn’t immediately find possible homes for alien life, it will essentially conduct a census of our galactic neighborhood, offering other insights into planets and solar systems.

"We can start to find out, how does planet occurrence vary as a function of the type of star and the age of the star?" Christiansen said. "We can resolve competing theories about how planets form."

Beyond planets, the spacecraft will also have its shutters open for other serendipitous, short-term events, such as supernovas, gamma ray bursts, or gravitational wave-generating neutron star collisions like the one that made headlines last fall.

"TESS is very much a trash-treasure sort of mission," said Natalia Guerrero, deputy manager for the TESS Objects of Interest team. Looking at light from across the whole sky, she said, it will inevitably find something to satisfy almost everyone in the astronomy community.

Comments
Bryce Harper wins All-Star home run derby

Bryce Harper wins All-Star home run derby

WASHINGTON — Nationals star Bryce Harper has not had a lot to enjoy in his last season before free agency, struggling — at least by his usual standards — with a .214 average and other deficiencies in his game.Monday turned out to be...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays journal: Some warn that pitching strategy comes at a price

Rays journal: Some warn that pitching strategy comes at a price

WASHINGTON — The success the Rays have had during two months of using a game opener followed by a relieving starter seems to have tamed some of the criticism of the unusual plan.Until Arizona ace Zack Greinke, a Cy Young award winner and five-t...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Rays’ Blake Snell now in a starring role

Rays’ Blake Snell now in a starring role

WASHINGTON — Blake Snell first got the feeling after arriving at the All-Star hotel late Sunday night. He'd shared the first-class cabin on the Delta flight from Minneapolis with Rays teammate Wilson Ramos plus manager Kevin Cash and his wife, ...
Updated: 4 hours ago

ORLANDOwoman killed, 2 passengers hurt in crossfireAuthorities said a pregnant woman was fatally shot and two children were wounded Monday as someone fired from a moving vehicle during a chase in Florida. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the shooti...
Updated: 5 hours ago
More than 30 Riverview residents awaken to broken car windows

More than 30 Riverview residents awaken to broken car windows

RIVERVIEW — Residents in more than 30 households woke up Monday morning to find their car windows had been smashed in.The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said it is searching for a pair of males who may be connected to the incident.The vehicles,...
Updated: 5 hours ago
DNA site helps make arrest in 1988 slaying

DNA site helps make arrest in 1988 slaying

The last time 8-year-old April Tinsley was seen alive, a man was dragging her into a beat-up blue pickup truck in Fort Wayne, Indiana.Police and her family fanned out that Friday afternoon in April 1988, searching through the weekend, but there was n...
Updated: 5 hours ago

FHP: Tampa motorcyclist fatally struck by driver who ran red light

TAMPA — A 54-year-old motorcyclist was killed Sunday night after being struck by a driver who ran a red light, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The crash took place at about 9 p.m. at the intersection of Bearss Avenue and Interstate 275.Motorc...
Updated: 6 hours ago

Lutz man dies in motorcycle crash on I-275 in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG A 38-year-old man died Sunday night after the Florida Highway Patrol said he lost control of his motorcycle on Interstate 275.The crash took place just before 8 a.m. Michael Coniglio, of Lutz, was traveling in the northbound inside lan...
Updated: 6 hours ago

Gun-rights lobbyist’s TV promo misfires

RICHMOND, Va. — One of Virginia’s top gun-rights lobbyists drew criticism from his own supporters Monday after he was duped into promoting guns for children as young as 3 and hawking toys such as a teddy bear with a concealed pistol on a television s...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Hillsborough deputies locate owner of wandering horse

Hillsborough deputies locate owner of wandering horse

DOVER — Tampa Bay may be one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation but, in certain places, it stubbornly remains a little bit country.Proof of that came on last week when the Hillsborough County’s Sheriff’s Office was called to the ...
Updated: 6 hours ago