TESS is On the Lookout for New Planets, What Do You See in the Night Sky?

NASA’s recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has so far found 50 possible worlds for scientists to study. By watching the dip in light that occurs as a planet traverses the front of a parent star, TESS finds these new planets. The first set of data has just begun trickling in, but astronomers’ first task is eliminating false positives.

How TESS “Sees” New Planets

While earthbound astronomers and amateurs rely on powerful telescopes and binoculars to observe the heavens, this exploration is powered by a TESS payload of four identical cameras paired with a Data Handling Unit (DHU). Each camera is compromised of a complex lens assembly with seven optical parts as well as a detector assembly that has four CCDs with more electronics.

Weeding Out the Unworthy

Pluto can relate to rejected objects that fail to achieve planetary status. For example, binary stars can cause a false positive, since these companions circle one another, temporarily blocking out each other’s light. When they are far enough away, they resemble a planet passing in front of its star. Even sunspots on the surface of a faraway star can create the effect.

Will the Real New Planets Please Stand Out?

Most planetary could-have-beens will be tossed aside following closer analysis. Still, MIT’s George Ricker told Astronomy magazine that the team expects to find at least six new planets in the first set of data, with many more to come. Ricker expects up to 20 percent of planetary candidates to pass muster after experts crossreference the transit method with the radial velocity method, which measures the influence of orbiting objects. Amateurs may be able to make their own observations and contribute to the project but looking throughhigh-tech telescopes using data from the research teams.

What’s Next?

NASA and MIT will partner to alert astronomers across the globe so that amateurs with superb instruments can assist with the screening. The end results may take months or years thanks to a large number of planetary candidates. Ricker predicts TESS will uncover up to 3,000 possible planets to keep amateur and professional astronomers busy.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.