Though Kepler Space Telescope has been doing the same job for years, the new satellite will advance its work and look for Earth-like planetary bodies orbiting some 200,000 brightest stars close to our sun.
"TESS is equipped with four very sensitive cameras that will be able to monitor almost the entire sky", said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The frequency of each faint flicker will indicate the planet's size and its distance from the star.
TESS operates like the Kepler Observatory and other planet-hunters: It watches for stars that dim when a planet passes in front of them.
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Scientists hope to discover about 50 small, rocky planets that may be habitable to alien life.
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TESS team partners include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center, MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, Orbital ATK, Nasa's Ames Research Center, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Once in orbit, TESS will analyse thousands of bright stars between 30 and 300 light-years away in search of new planets.
TESS itself will not detect life beyond Earth. Their brightness will allow researchers to use spectroscopy-a technique that measures the absorption and emission of light-to determine a planet's mass, density and atmospheric composition, which could provide insights into whether or not it harbors life.
"Tess will tell us where and when to point", said Cheops' Esa project scientist, Kate Isaak.
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. The expectation, by the time the mission is concluded, is that TESS will have looked at some 85 percent of the visible sky. Looking at light from across the whole sky, she said, it will inevitably find something to satisfy nearly everyone in the astronomy community.