Wednesday, September 20, 2017

NASA center director: If Trump pivots to the Moon, we’re “set up” to do it

“It's not at all incompatible with what we’re doing,” Ellen Ochoa said.

Ellen Ochoa is a four-time astronaut who has served as director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston since 2013. As part of that job, Ochoa oversees a space center that trains astronauts for spaceflight missions, houses Mission Control, and manages the International Space Station and Orion spacecraft programs.

In recent years, the space center has also played a central role in preparing for and publicizing NASA's "Journey to Mars," the poorly funded effort by the agency to send humans to the red planet in the 2030s. Orion has been touted as a centerpiece of this strategy, and astronauts have talked about using what they've learned on the station and applying it toward going to Mars.

Now, however, key Trump appointees are beginning to talk about sending humans to the Moon before Mars. The administration's choice to serve as executive secretary of the National Space Council, Scott Pace, favors a return to the Moon. So does Trump's choice to lead NASA, Jim Bridenstine. It seems likely that, at some point, NASA's human destination will switch from "Mars" to the "Moon, then Mars," echoing the space policy first established during the administration of George W. Bush.

Earlier this month, on the 55th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's Moon speech at Rice University, Ochoa appeared on a stage at the university alongside Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise. The director of the Rice Space Institute, David Alexander, asked Ochoa how Johnson Space Center would react to such a change in direction.

“Not incompatible”

"If we do see an administration that decides to make a little bit of a turn and focus a little bit more on the Moon, I think we're very well set up to do it," Ochoa replied. "It's not at all incompatible with what we're doing," she added.

NASA's current plan involves testing out the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket in two test flights between 2019 and 2023 before starting to assemble a "Deep Space Gateway" in an orbit near the Moon. This outpost would be used to test technologies in a "deep space" environment and could then serve as a staging area for missions to Mars or lunar operations.

"What we've really tried to do at NASA is leave a lot of options open, to develop the basic capabilities—the spacecraft Orion and the heavy lift launch vehicle—and then talk with other partners about what they are interested in doing," Ochoa said. "Then we have begun to build the infrastructure around the Moon, from which a variety of things are possible."

How much of the current plan will survive a rewrite by the Trump administration is unclear. For example, the Deep Space Gateway may be dropped from the budget in favor of a program to land cargo and crew directly on the Moon. What seems clear, however, is that Johnson Space Center, which played the leading role in the Apollo program, would be happy to play an important part in sending humans back.

Source: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/09/nasa-center-director-if-trump-pivots-to-the-moon-were-set-up-to-do-it/

Trump’s pick for NASA lays out agenda and answers critics

Jim Bridenstine likely to win fairly easy approval from Senate.

Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who was nominated to become NASA's next administrator by the Trump administration on September 1, may get a Senate confirmation hearing as early as next week. The choice of the 42-year-old Republican pilot has raised objections among some of his fellow members of Congress because of his lack of a technical background. Environmentalists have also objected to Bridenstine due to his views on climate change.

However, a pre-hearing questionnaire submitted by Bridenstine addresses some of these criticisms and also offers some important clues about where he would like to see the space agency go. "With NASA's global leadership, we will pioneer the Solar System, send humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond. This requires a consistent, sustainable strategy for deep space exploration." Bridenstine supports human missions to the Moon before going to Mars.

Florida senators

Among the first critics of Bridenstine's nomination on September 1 were Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. Nelson told Politico that the head of NASA should have a professional background, rather than a political one. Rubio echoed Nelson's sentiments, saying, “I just think it could be devastating for the space program. Obviously, being from Florida, I’m very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission." He added that NASA's administrator should have a scientific perspective.

However, as Space Policy Online subsequently noted, two of NASA's previous 11 administrators have had no technical experience. And arguably the agency's most effective administrator, James Webb, who led NASA during the Mercury, Gemini, and initial Apollo missions, was a lawyer.

Although Bridenstine is a politician, there are likely few people in Congress more qualified to lead the space agency. As a Naval aviator, he flew missions off of aircraft carriers and combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a member of Congress, Bridenstine immersed himself in space-related committees and policy decisions, seeking to reform US aerospace efforts in both civil and military space. The conservative has previously outlined broad goals to modernize the US spaceflight enterprise with his American Space Enterprise Act.

Environmental lobby

Perhaps the most vocal criticism of Bridenstine has come from environmental groups, which oppose Bridenstine's views on climate change (because of statements like these). One group, Climate Hawks Vote, urged people to call their representatives to oppose Trump's nominee, saying, "NASA needs to be run by someone who respects science. Not climate denier Jim Bridenstine."

However, as NASA Watch has reported, Bridenstine's record on climate change is not entirely clear-cut, as some of his votes have indicated concern about the future effects of climate change and the need for further study. For example, earlier this year he said, "There are real changes in the Arctic that do affect the Navy. The Arctic ice is disappearing. There are strategic changes that are being implicated here. And it's important for the Department of Defense to report to Congress on this."

As part of his questionnaire, Bridenstine wrote that NASA should continue studying humanity's home planet along with its mission of planetary science to study Mars and the rest of the Solar System. "NASA must continue to advance both Earth science and planetary science for the benefit of mankind."

One of Bridenstine's consistent themes as a US representative was to push NOAA to rely more on the private sector for data collection about Earth's atmosphere. It seems possible that, along these lines, he will push NASA to do less "operational" work to enable NOAA's data collection and do more actual research.

It is certainly true that Bridenstine is not an advocate for immediate, consequential action on climate change. But amid the potential choices of the Trump administration to lead NASA, he does not appear to be dogmatic about ending funding for science—including Earth science—from the agency's budget or mandate.

Commercial support

Some of the opposition to Bridenstine during the last six months has come, quietly, from the legacy aerospace industry. (Likely, this was the driver of Rubio's initial criticism of Bridenstine.) The large aerospace firms who have traditionally fulfilled civil and military aerospace contracts, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and other companies are skeptical of Bridenstine's chumminess with the commercial space industry.

After his nomination, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents "new space" firms such as SpaceX, immediately praised the choice. "NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Representative Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said Alan Stern, board chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, which represents more traditional aerospace companies and those firms working on NASA's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, offered a more muted comment four days after the nomination, saying, "We look forward to working with NASA’s new leadership team." In a subsequent statement to The Washington Post, the organization's executive director, Mary Lynne Dittmar, backed away from a full endorsement.

As part of his questionnaire, Bridenstine sought to allay some of those concerns by listing reconciling these differences as one of NASA's top three challenges: "Bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs into a comprehensive NASA vision to maximize resources and create efficiencies."

This approach appears to be working. The leading congressional champion of NASA's Space Launch System rocket, Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby, tweeted Tuesday that he had met with Bridenstine. "I look forward to supporting him throughout this process," Shelby added. This suggests that Bridenstine will win his nomination fairly easily.

Source: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/09/trumps-pick-for-nasa-lays-out-agenda-and-answers-critics/

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A lawsuit almost stalled NASA's Cassini mission

Captain Scott Kelly wasn't kidding when he famously quipped that "space is hard". Even getting to the launch pad can prove to be a daunting challenge. Take the Cassini mission to study Saturn, for example. Despite an investment of $3.4 billion and nearly a decade of development, Cassini wound up being very nearly scuttled at the last minute by protesters who thought they knew better than a federal agency that has put multiple men on the moon. Geez guys, it was just 73 pounds of plutonium riding aboard that Saturn orbiter -- it wouldn't have caused that much damage had something gone horribly wrong at launch.

The Cassini mission, named after the 17th century Italian-French astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini, marks the end of an era for NASA. It is likely the final "flagship-class" mission (those costing more than $1 billion) fielded by the space agency, if NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's claims from 2013 are still accurate. Other flagships included the vaunted Viking and Voyager missions as well as the Mars Curiosity rover and the Hubble Space telescope.

The Cassini mission started in 1982 when the European Science Foundation and NASA were still kicking around the idea of conducting their own respective solo missions to Saturn. Despite an impassioned report from astronaut Sally Ride in 1986, titled NASA Leadership and America's Future in Space, NASA and the ESA decided to go in halfsies on a joint mission.

However, by 1994, the mission's Congressional critics had begun to question the value of such a mission. The program had already eclipsed $3.3 billion in development costs -- that's $5 billion in 2017 money, adjusted for inflation, or about half of what we spent on the new James Webb Space Telescope. It was only because the ESA was also contributing funds to the mission and NASA was able to demonstrate that technology developed for Cassini would carry over to the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder and the Spitzer Space Telescope projects that this one was allowed to move forward.

That forward momentum came to a sudden halt three years later and just a day after then-President Clinton approved the mission. On October 4th, 1997, 800 protesters showed up (27 of which were arrested) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in opposition to the Cassini launch, which was then scheduled for October 7th.

The protesters were worried that, should the Titan IV rocket ferrying the orbiter into space suffer a catastrophic mishap during launch, it would vaporize the 73 pounds of Plutonium-238 that the Cassini carried and spread radioactive fallout across central Florida. The protesters were even more worried about that Cassini's upcoming gravitational slingshot, which would use the Earth's pull to accelerate the spacecraft into the outer solar system, could spread fallout across the globe, should Cassini accidentally re-enter orbit during the maneuver. The Green Party even went so far as to file a federal lawsuit against the government in a Hawaiian court to halt the launch.

"Winds can blow (plutonium) into Disney World, Universal City, into the citrus industry and destroy the economy of central Florida," Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, told Mother Jones. He calculated that as many as a million people could be exposed to radiation if the launch went wrong.

The protesters' issue focused on, again, the 73 pounds of Plutonium-238 aboard the Cassini orbiter. This wasn't the first time that NASA had utilized radioactive materials as a power source for its long-endurance spacecraft -- New Horizons, Galileo, and Ulysses all carried similar setups -- but none had ever carried this much Pu-238 at one time before. The orbiter actually employed three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) during its 11-year mission. They're not for propulsion, mind you (that's what the gravitational slingshots were for), but rather a means to power the onboard scientific instruments for the duration of the trip.

RTGs are fairly simple devices and have been used for both civilian and military applications since their development in the 1950s. They consist of a container of radioactive material with a pair of thermocouples attached to the outside. The opposite end of each thermocouple is also attached to a heat sink. As the material decays, it produces heat. The difference in temperature between the container and the heatsink enables the thermocouples to generate an electrical charge. It's the same principle that allows camp stoves to also charge your phone.

Cassini's instruments aren't particularly power-hungry, drawing around 600 - 700 watts of electricity, but 11 years is a long time in the cold depths of interplanetary space. So why not just use solar panels, Cassini protesters argued, as NASA had for a bunch of other missions? The problem with that is the sheer distance between Saturn and the Sun -- 888 million miles on average. NASA did actually look into outfitting Cassini with solar panels but the math simply didn't work.

The Mars Rover does well enough with solar power, for example, but it's six times closer to the Sun than Saturn. In order to produce the requisite wattage while in Saturn's orbit, the Cassini would have had to sport panels the size of tennis courts. These would have had proven too bulky and too heavy to get the orbiter out of Earth's atmosphere.

Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than Plutonium-239, the stuff we use to make nuclear weapons, and has a half life of 88 years. That makes it a potent and long-lasting power source. What's more, the alpha particles that Pu-238 emits can't penetrate further than a few cellular levels, so the biggest threat comes from inhaling the stuff. However, "it cannot be exploded like a bomb," Beverly Cook of the Energy Department, told CNN. "It is an alpha emitter. Alpha radiation can be stopped by a piece of paper."

The chances of having Cassini's payload of nuclear material vaporize during a catastrophic engineering failure were exceedingly remote, according to NASA. "This is not a nuclear reactor. They are nuclear batteries," Wes Huntress, associate administrator for space science at NASA, explained to PBS Newshour. "They're not used for propulsion. It's not a nuclear power plant. We don't have any nuclear reactions going on. We simply use the isotope to generate heat, and from the heat we generate electricity for the spacecraft."

Even so, NASA spent a lot of time working out how to most safely utilize a plutonium-based power source. First, NASA isn't just shoving glowing green rocks into the RTG and closing the hatch. The Plutonium-238 that NASA sends to space is actually plutonium dioxide, a more inert version that is produced exclusively for space missions by the Department of Energy. They're basically marshmallow-sized insoluble ceramic nuggets. 72 of these were encased in iridium and graphite containers capable of the ludicrously intense heat generated during atmospheric reentry, much less a piddly launchpad explosion. And even if the pellets were exposed to vast amounts of heat, they're designed to break down into chunks rather than vaporize, further reducing the chances that someone will breath them in.

And, as for the dangers posed by a botched gravitational assist, Huntress was not impressed by the protesters' reasoning. "This Earth fly-by is something that we have done many, many times before at other planets, as well as at Earth, the last time being with the Galileo nuclear-powered spacecraft," he told PBS. "And we manage these thing with very high precision. And Cassini is, in fact, not coming nearly as close to the Earth as did Galileo and Galileo's approach managed with very fine -- one kilometer accuracy -- with no difficulty whatsoever."

Despite these assurances, many of the protesters remained unconvinced. "Jimmy the Greek would say: Look at the track record," Kaku said to Mother Jones. "The track record is one out of 20 booster rockets blow up on launch ... Ten percent of our space probes actually come down." Indeed, out of the 23 missions NASA has attempted with nuclear payloads, three failed. However, the RTGs in each instance survived the mishaps intact. Overall, NASA figured there was only a 1 in 1,400 chance at launch that the plutonium might be released, 1 in 476 during its trip into space and less than 1 in a million when the orbiter swung back past Earth in 1999 during its slingshot maneuver.

Richard Spehalski, program manager for Cassini at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was not impressed by the reasoning of Kaku and the protesters. "They're taking our statements and our documentation out of context and citing consequences that aren't even possible," he responded in MoJo.

Even if the worst did happen: the orbiter failed its flyby and spread nuclear material over an estimated 5 billion people as it re-entered the atmosphere, NASA argued that the dosage of such an event would be about a millirem per year. For comparison, the average American sucks up about 620 millirem annually, roughly half of which comes from cosmic background radiation.

So despite Kaku's continued complaints to MoJo -- "This is a science experiment, and we are the guinea pigs," he said -- both the District Court in Hawaii and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Green Party's lawsuit. Thus the launch was allowed to move forward. On October 15th, the Titan IV rocket successfully lifted off and launched its cargo on a seven-year journey towards perhaps the most recognizable planet in our solar system.

And it's a damn good thing the courts agreed with NASA, given how many astronomical wonders Cassini has helped discover over the past decade. In 2005, it found geysers blasting liquid water from subsurface oceans (and theoretically, whatever was living there) into space. The orbiter mapped the liquid methane rivers of Titan; discovered massive hurricane-like storms at both of Saturn's poles, imaged the vertical structure of the planet's rings for the first time and delivered the Huygens probe, the only human-made machine to land on a moon in the outer solar system to date. That's to say nothing of the trickle-down nature of space engineering and design that will see tech from this mission be adapted, improved and reused in future missions. What was Bolden even thinking?

Source: https://www.engadget.com/2017/09/13/nasa-cassini-mission-lawsuit/

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

China Unveils Physics-Defying Engine for Deep Space Exploration

Chinese scientists claim they have developed a working model of a microwave engine, which defies the laws of conventional physics, CCTV-2 reported.

The TV channel provided no details of the EmDrive microwave engine, saying only that it would soon be tested in space.

The EmDrive is built around a microwave-generating magnetron and a resonator, which accumulates the energy of their fluctuations. This generates thrust, which can’t be explained by the conventional energy conservation law.

The magnetron pushes microwaves into a closed truncated cone, driving them against its short end thus propelling the craft forward without producing any exhaust.

This differs from the type of propulsion currently used by spacecraft, which burn large quantities of fuel to generate a massive amount of energy to rocket the craft into space.


Scientists believe that a rocket propulsion system based on electromagnetic drives engines could enable humans to reach the outer fringes of our solar system in a matter of just a few months.

A report earlier published by NASA specialists said that the EmDrive indeed generates “constant thrust” using neither fuel nor creating any directed radiation pressure – a phenomenon, which experts say flies in the face of the universally —recognized law of conservation of momentum.

Electromagnetic drive engines, which require no fuel, could pave the way for manned missions to Mars, Jupiter and its moons, asteroids, and eventually to deep space, which is something that China plans to accomplish in the next few years.

China's State Council has released a white paper about its ambitious space program, including the first soft —landing on the far side of the moon in 2018, and a Mars mission to carry out orbiting and roving exploration before the end of the decade.

BoldlyGo Institute and NASA Sign Space Act Agreement for Joint Cooperation on Project Blue Mission

 The BoldlyGo Institute (BoldlyGo) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have signed a Space Act Agreement to cooperate on "Project Blue," a mission to search for potentially habitable Earth-size planets in the Alpha Centauri system using a specially designed space telescope.

"We're pleased to be working with NASA on this ambitious public-private partnership," said Dr. Jon Morse, CEO of BoldlyGo. "Much of the coronagraph imaging technology needed for Project Blue to take direct images of exoplanets from space has been developed through NASA-funded programs. Having access to NASA's scientific and technical expertise throughout the mission lifecycle is invaluable," Morse continued.

The Space Act Agreement is non-reimbursable, with no exchange of funds between NASA and BoldlyGo. It allows NASA employees - scientists and engineers - to interact with the Project Blue team through its mission development phases to help review mission design plans and to share scientific results on Alpha Centauri and exoplanets along with the latest technology tests being undertaken at NASA facilities. NASA's engagement in its consulting role will be triggered through a set of milestones as technical work is accomplished and the private consortium leading Project Blue raises the funds necessary to continue mission development.

The agreement also calls for the raw and processed data from Project Blue to be made available to NASA within one year of its acquisition on orbit via a publicly accessible online data archive. The Project Blue team has been planning such an archive for broadly sharing the data with the global astronomical community and for enabling citizen scientist participation.

BoldlyGo and the Project Blue mission team are responsible for the funding and design of a small telescope capable of blocking a star's light in order to image surrounding exoplanets. The telescope will take 3-4 years to construct and launch. Once in orbit, Project Blue will perform an intensive two-year study of Alpha Centauri -- the closest star system to Earth -- with the goal of identifying and capturing a "pale blue dot" image of an Earth-size exoplanet in the habitable zone of the Alpha Centauri A and B stars. The habitable zone is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. While NASA's Kepler mission has shown that terrestrial-sized planets are common in our galaxy, Project Blue would be the first to image in visible light a planet as small as Earth that could potentially sustain life.

Source: http://spaceref.com/exoplanets/boldlygo-institute-and-nasa-sign-space-act-agreement-for-joint-cooperation-on-project-blue-mission.html

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

NASA preparing call for proposals for commercial lunar landers

WASHINGTON — NASA is preparing to release a solicitation for the commercial transportation of payloads to the lunar surface, the latest step in the agency’s efforts to help promote the development of commercial lunar landers.

In testimony Sept. 7 at a House space subcommittee hearing on private lunar exploration, Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, said the agency was developing a call for proposals for such services after evaluating the results from a request for information (RFI) earlier in the year.

“What we are now looking at doing is actually buying landed delivery services in the next fiscal year, of actually buying the first ability to land small payloads,” he said. “We’re preparing for the solicitation as we speak.”

That solicitation, he said, is being informed by responses the agency received from an RFI it issued in early May. That RFI sought details from companies about their ability to deliver “instruments, experiments, or other payloads” through the next decade to support NASA’s science, exploration and technology development needs.

That upcoming solicitation, Crusan said, would allow NASA to buy transportation for small instruments and technology demonstration payloads. “This is a sign of our growing confidence in the commercial industry,” he said, “and managing risk without getting too large or too costly a payload for us on their maiden flights.”

The upcoming solicitation is the latest step in a long-running, but low-key, effort by NASA to support the development of commercial lunar transportation systems. In 2014, NASA awarded Space Act Agreements to three companies developing lunar landers under the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program, providing in-kind support to their efforts.

Two of those companies say they’re ready to start launching lunar lander missions, for NASA and other customers, as soon as next year. Bob Richards, founder and chief executive of Moon Express, said his company was now planning a 2018 launch of its first lunar lander, an MX-1E spacecraft. The company was previously planning a launch this year of that mission, but a recent change in the rules of the Google Lunar X Prize competition, of which Moon Express is a finalist, allows the company to launch early next year provided it completes its mission by the end of March 2018.

That first mission, Richards said, will “deliver a diverse manifest of scientific and commercial payloads to the lunar surface.” The mission, he added, is fully booked, with future missions planned at the rate of one a year.

John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic Technology, said his company’s Peregrine lander is set to make its first flight in 2019 as a secondary payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 mission. “Astrobotic is leading the world in lunar sales and market development,” he said, including 11 deals for payloads already signed and a sales pipeline that includes more than 115 potential customers.

Both companies noted NASA support for their development. “Moon Express is honored to be partnered with NASA since the inception of our company,” Richard said, citing both the Lunar CATALYST award and earlier reimbursable Space Act Agreements with the Ames Research Center and Marshall Space Flight Center.

Thornton said he was “encouraged” by NASA’s recent RFI calling for commercial lunar transport services, as well as language in a House appropriations bill providing $30 million in fiscal year 2018 for a small robotic lunar lander demonstration mission. “Now is the time for NASA to join our payload manifest,” he said.

A third company at the hearing, Blue Origin, has its sights on larger lunar landers. The company’s Blue Moon concept, announced earlier this year, involves a system capable of landing up to several tons of cargo on the lunar surface. That vehicle would launch on NASA’s Space Launch System or other vehicles, including Blue Origin’s own New Glenn vehicle under development.

Blue Origin has made “significant investments” in key technologies for Blue Moon said Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy for the company, but suggested that development of the system be done as a partnership with NASA, similar to the agency’s commercial cargo and crew programs.

“As part of a public-private partnership with NASA, we are willing to invest further in developing this capability,” he said. “We invite NASA to partner with Blue Origin using innovative contracting mechanisms that require private sector investment and cost-sharing.”

Both the witnesses and the committee members largely stayed away from bigger policy questions, such as whether a human return to the moon should become a priority for NASA. Alexander did state that a future NASA authorization bill “should include provisions that prioritize landing on the lunar surface in the near term” and “include a strategy of the moon as a stepping stone to expanding human exploration in our solar system.”

“The moon is not an off-ramp to Mars, it’s an on-ramp to Mars,” said Richards, arguing that lunar resources, accessed in partnerships between governments and companies, can help make space exploration and development sustainable. “If we go to space to stay, it has to pay.”

Those lunar resources include water ice in permanently-shadowed regions of craters at the lunar poles. “Water is the oil of space,” said George Sowers, a professor in the new space resources program at the Colorado School of Mines. “Strategically, we should view the poles of the moon as the next Persian Gulf.”

Making use of those resources, he said, will require future action by Congress to provide a regulatory scheme to ensure companies have the right to extract ice and other resources, and even offer protection for those companies. “If there’s wealth in space,” he said, “eventually there’s going to be pirates in space.”

Source: http://spacenews.com/nasa-preparing-call-for-proposals-for-commercial-lunar-landers/

NASA's Will Use TESS To Discover Hundreds Of Exoplanets

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is a spacecraft that will be launched sometime in 2018 that will take on a two-year mission to monitor more than 200,000 stars in an attempt to discover more exoplanets. TESS is the first spaceborne all-sky transit survey, meaning that the craft will remain in space while it completes its mission. If successful, it will accomplish what no ground based survey can.

The Mission

TESS will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants like Jupiter. The main focus is to find small planets with host stars that are 10-100 times brighter than those surveyed during the Kepler mission. Planets that have bright host stars are easier to study. Really the only time we can get a good look at planets like these is when they pass in front of their host star. Therefore, the brighter the star the better.

The Coverage

The prime objective of TESS is to observe bright stars. To do this TESS will maintain a unique high Earth orbit. It will have an unobstructed view in a stable thermal environment with low radiation. To observe the stars TESS will use four identical cameras. Each camera will look at a sector of space for 27 days. Each sector covers a 24˚ x 24˚ area. With the four cameras pointed in different directions, they will observe four sectors at a time.

After 27 days have passed the craft will rotate to observe four new sectors. It will continue in this fashion for a year completing a 360˚ view of the southern hemisphere of space around the Earth. In the second year, it will observe the northern hemisphere. When the mission is complete TESS will have observed the surrounding space in all directions.


What they hope to find

By observing more than 200,000 stars over two years they are expecting to find more than 1,500 exoplanets. This will include more than 1000 planets smaller than Neptune and dozens that are the size of Earth. The goal is to build a catalog of planets for further study with the James Web Space Telescope and ground based techniques.

Details about the spacecraft and its mission are in the infographic below.