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The first science image from NASA’s TESS exoplanet hunter is mind-boggling

Published Sep 17th, 2018 4:47PM EDT
nasa tess

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NASA’s TESS spacecraft — that stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, in case you had somehow forgotten — is an incredibly powerful tool for spotting distant worlds. It was launched back in April, but it took some time to get the satellite up to speed and begin working on actual science objectives.

Now, in a demonstration of its power, NASA is showing off the first science image the satellite has captured, and boy is it a beauty. The image is absolutely packed with stars, taking a half hour to soak in the light and produce the collection of pictures you see below.

It watches for tiny dips in the brightness of far-away stars to detect planets moving in front of them, which happens to be a great way to prove the existence of planets outside of our own Solar System. It’s a surprisingly straightforward way of spotting planets that are otherwise invisible with current technology, but it requires an incredibly sensitive lens to notice the changes in brightness.

“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” NASA’s Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director, said in a statement. “This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”

This image was taken of the southern hemisphere, but the spacecraft has a lengthy mission that will see it scan all areas of space. TESS will spend a year or so on the southern hemisphere and then work its way to the northern hemisphere, collecting an immense amount of data and relaying it back to scientists on Earth. That data will be combed and, it’s expected, will yield countless new exoplanet discoveries.