NASA planet-hunting spacecraft rockets away

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A SpaceX Falcon rocket is set to blast off with the Tess satellite Wednesday evening from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The new targeted launch date is 18 April.

Tess, or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will peer at hundreds of thousands of bright neighboring stars, seeking planets that could support life. Repeated dips would indicate a planet passing in front of its star.

TESS is expected to reveal 20,000 planets beyond our solar system, including more than 50 Earth-sized planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of the Earth, NASA said. Its job is to find and characterize planets that will become the main targets of future telescopes.

Once in orbit, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or Tess, will peer at hundreds of thousands of bright neighboring stars, seeking planets. Rather, it will scout for planets of all sorts, but especially those in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone of a star: an orbit where temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot, but just right for life-nourishing water. Over the past decade it has been a powerhouse of discovery, finding over 2000 confirmed new planets, including many that could potentially harbour life.

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The most promising candidates will be studied by bigger, more powerful observatories of the future, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in another few years as the heir to Hubble.

"Kepler was a "statistical mission", explains Guerrero, "meaning it carefully measured everything within a specific patch of sky it observed and completed a "census" of the stars in that field of view".

It's almost time for SpaceX to launch NASA's TESS, a space telescope that will search for exoplants across nearly the entire night sky.

The satellite will measure a planet's size and orbit, and then follow-up efforts will measure mass, allowing astronomers to better understand its composition.

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Currently, we have located about 3800 exoplanets using other telescopes, specifically by the Kepler spacecraft which was launched in 2009.

But if TESS discovers as many exoplanets as anticipated, observing time might be stretched. "Nature's really saying, "look here, look here" and that's exactly what we're going to do".

Facilities are now being built to analyse TESS's discoveries, and Australia will be playing a key role.

Life might be out there, whether microbial or more advanced, and scientists say Tess and later missions will help answer the age-old question of whether we're alone.

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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.