NASA's newest planet hunter will launch Monday night - if all goes well
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 followup 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 neighbourhood, 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.