NASA’s TESS Exoplanet Hunter Starts Science Operations, Catches Comet Imagery: Interview

NASA’s Transiting
Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from
Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April
18, 2018. Now in orbit, TESS will spend about two years surveying 200,000 of
the brightest stars near the sun to search for planets outside our solar
system. Credits:
NASA
Ken Kremer     SpaceUpClose.com     15 August 2018


KENNEDY SPACE
CENTER, FL – NASA’s groundbreaking exoplanet hunting mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), has begun
science operations after reaching its final orbit and completing
the spacecraft commissioning phase in late July. “All hardware is fabulous” and
its quartet of “cameras are working great” said spacecraft builder Northrop
Grumman’s Robert Lockwood in an exclusive interview with Space UpClose. 



And
to top it all off, TESS science ops should be long lived because the ship is fuel
rich ! –
with
“multiple decades of fuel remaining,” Lockwood
told Space UpClose. 



“NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite
has started its search for planets around nearby stars, officially beginning
science operations on July 25, 2018,” NASA officials announced in a statement. 



Coincidentally, TESS also caught a “stunning sequence of
serendipitous images showing the motion of a comet. Taken over the course of 17
hours on July 25, these TESS images helped demonstrate the satellite’s ability
to collect a prolonged set of stable periodic images covering a broad region of
the sky — all critical factors in finding transiting planets orbiting nearby
stars” said NASA.



“TESS took images of comet C/2018 N1, recently discovered
by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE)
satellite on June 29. The comet is  located about 29 million miles (48 million
kilometers) from Earth in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus.” 




Video Caption: This
video is compiled from a series of images taken on July 25, 2018 by the Transiting
Exoplanet Survey Satellite. The angular extent of the widest field of view is
six degrees. Visible in the images are the comet C/2018 N1, asteroids, variable
stars, asteroids and reflected light from Mars. TESS is expected to find
thousands of planets around other nearby stars. 
Credits:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center



But before it could
start its planet hunting science TESS first had to reach its desired final  
P/2 resonant science orbit – and the MIT/Northrop Grumman team completed a thorough test and check
out of all spacecraft systems, subsystems and instruments. 



TESS arrived
at the P/2 resonant science orbit, which is
stable and highly
elliptical, a
fter
completing a lunar gravity assist flyby in mid-May and its final thruster
firing maneuver at the end of May.



“Post launch we did all the check-out operations, did three
orbit raisings and then a fly-by of the Moon on May 17
– which
was super exciting!”  
Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital
ATK) TESS program manager Robert Lockwood told SpaceUpClose.com in an exclusive
interview.
   Lockwood is based
at the TESS mission operations center at
Northrop
Grumman’s  (
Orbital
ATK)  facility in Dulles, VA.



“Then we did the final period-adjust maneuver (PAM) on May 30.
It lasted 923 seconds and was our largest maneuver.” 



“We checked out all the instruments and completed the
entire commissioning procedure of some 152 steps.  All the cameras are healthy!



“We entered our first science orbit on July 25.”

Graphic of NASA’s
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite orbit raising maneuvers. Credit: NASA

Describe the current
health of the spacecraft?



“The
TESS spacecraft is healthy!” Lockwood told me. “
And all the hardware
is fabulous.”



The power and thermal margins
are good. It’s been a real pleasure to work with NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN)
[ to get all the data back].”



“All systems are really GO!”

NASA’s TESS Exoplanet hunter being processed by
technicians inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing
Facility clean room on Feb 20, 2018 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Launch
on SpaceX Falcon 9 occurred on April 18, 2018. Credit:
Ken Kremer/SpaceUpClose.com/kenkremer.com

How are the 4 wide field cameras operating that will detect
the exoplanets?



“The cameras are great!”  



“Everything that the science team wanted has been running really
well with the four cameras,” Lockwood replied. 



The principal goal
of TESS is to carry out an all sky survey using its four wide-field cameras to
detect and discover dozens of new Earth and Super Earth sized exoplanets beyond
our Solar System around nearby bright host stars in
the solar neighborhood
that may be capable of supporting life, and
possibly answer one of humanities most profound questions – “Are We Alone?”



After
finding the new planets, scientists will conduct follow-up observations with telescopes
on Earth and in space
like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – to confirm their nature and characterize their composition and atmospheres.


And the TESS science team will have plenty of time to
search for those ‘New Earths and Super Earths’ – because its got a tremendous
fuel margin!



How much hydrazine maneuvering fuel remains?


“After all our maneuvers, we now have 2/3 of the tank of fuel
remaining,”Lockwood explained.  “We have
so much fuel leftover.”

“We have multiple decades of fuel remaining.” 



“It’s enough for at least two decades. We will refine that
further as the mission goes on.”



“The only thing we need fuel for now is momentum unloading.
And they only take grams of fuel.”



“We have 30 kg of hydrazine fuel remaining out of an original
load of 45 kg.”



The first actual data is expected back soon.  


“TESS is
expected to transmit its first series of science data back to Earth in August,
and thereafter periodically every 13.5 days, once per orbit, as the spacecraft
makes its closest approach to Earth. The TESS Science Team will begin searching
the data for new planets immediately after the first series arrives,” said NASA
officials.



“I’m thrilled that our new planet hunter mission
is ready to start scouring our solar system’s neighborhood for new worlds,”
said Paul Hertz, NASA Astrophysics division director at Headquarters,
Washington. 



“Now that we know there are more planets than
stars in our universe, I look forward to the strange, fantastic worlds we’re
bound to discover.”



The $337 million spacecraft was
built by prime contractor Orbital ATK – now Northrop Grumman.  



The kitchen table sized probe weighs
770 pounds (350 kg) and measures 12 x 4 x 5 ft (3.7 x 1.2 x 1.5 m). 



P/2 is the name of the TESS mission’s final science orbit. 



TESS is NASA’s second exoplanet
mission and a follow up to the hugely successful Kepler probe which discovered
over 2300 exoplanets of all sizes. 



The Transiting Exoplanet
Survey Satellite (TESS) successfully blasted off on a two stage SpaceX Falcon 9
rocket at 6:51 p.m. EDT, April 18, from seaside Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.



NASA’s
next planet-hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS),
successfully launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on
April 18, 2018 from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
FL – in this view from a pad camera. TESS will search for new worlds
outside our solar system for further study.
  Credit:
Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/spaceupclose.com




Prior to launch I
visited TESS in the clean room processing facility for an up close look and media
briefing about the small sized but scientifically powerful observatory during a
visit with the spacecraft and team inside
the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility clean room at NASA’s Kennedy
Space Center.  



Check out our Space UpClose gallery
of up close clean room, prelaunch and launch photos here and earlier.



NASA’s
next planet-hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS),
successfully launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on
April 18, 2018 from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
FL – in this view from a pad camera. TESS will search for new worlds
outside our solar system for further study.
  Credit:
Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/spaceupclose.com




TESS is charged with searching for
and discovering new Earth and Super Earth sized planets beyond our Solar System
that orbit their host stars inside the habitable zones that offer conditions
conducive to the origin and evolution of life. 



During an initial 2-year long
mission, TESS will gradually sweep across the entire sky and conduct a full sky
survey by monitoring and investigating over 200,000 of the nearest and
brightest stars to search for planets outside our
solar system.



“One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an
astronomer finds a planet in a star’s
habitable
zone
, will it be interesting from a
biologist’s point of view?” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kavli Institute for
Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge, which is leading the mission. 



“We expect TESS will discover a number of planets whose
atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life,
could be precisely measured by future observers.”



This test image from one
of the four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)
captures a swath of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. TESS is
expected to cover more than 400 times the amount of sky shown in this image
when using all four of its cameras during science operations.  Credits: NASA/MIT/TESS

TESS is NASA’s second exoplanet
mission and a follow up to the hugely successful Kepler probe which discovered
over 2300 exoplanets of all sizes. 



To carry out its daunting task, the
spacecraft is equipped with 4 identical wide-field science cameras.  Their combined field of view will enable the
spacecraft to image some 85% of the entire sky during the full sky survey over
the first two years. 



Scientists plumbing the data
gathered by TESS hope to discover on the order of 300 to 500 Earths and Super
Earths alone, orbiting in their habitable zones compared to a dozen or so by
Kepler. 



TESS observations will yield the orbits
and sizes of these exoplanets.  They will
also provide the specific targets for follow up high resolution investigations
by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and other telescopes to determine the
exoplanets masses, compositions and atmospheric constituents. 



In turn researchers will use these
observations to determine if any of the newly discovered Earths and Super
earths and actually Earth like possessing water, oxygen and carbon based
molecules for example that can potentially support life. 



How will TESS conduct the full sky
survey? The sky has been subdivided into 26 observing sectors that basically
equate to tileing the sky piece by piece – much like covering your kitchen
floor with tiles. 



TESS will map the sky one tile at a
time by pointing the four cameras to discrete sectors of the sky and then
combining them into an overarching panorama of the Universe encircling Earth. 



The sky has been divided into 2
hemispheres – southern and northern.



Each hemisphere has been divided
into 13 sectors that will be observed one by one.  The southern sky of 13 sectors will be imaged
initially over the first year, followed by the northern sky of 13 sectors over
the second year.   



Each of the cameras is equipped with
four 16.8 megapixel CCD’s and a seven element optical system. 



The cameras are located on the top
of the spacecraft inside a protective sunshade to shield the instruments. 



TESS will observe each sky sector
tile for approximately 28 days of continuous observations.  



Each sky tile from a single camera
measures 24 degrees by 24 degrees. The 4 cameras combine to simultaneously
cover a sector of 24 x 96 degrees. 



TESS is the first space science
mission launched by SpaceX for NASA.  



The SpaceX Falcon 9 delivered TESS
to a highly elliptical Earth orbit – never used before by a science mission,
Ricker said
at the prelaunch media briefing.



The elliptical orbit ranges from 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers)
at perigee to 233,000 miles (376,000 kilometers) at apogee from Earth
.  




TESS will orbit Earth in 13.7 days
in a 2:1 resonance orbit with the moon named P/2. The moon orbits earth every
28 days. 



The TESS science orbit is extremely
stable as a result, thus requiring minimal fuel to maintain.  The spacecraft is loaded with enough
propellants to continue its observations for 20 years if all goes well with the
spacecraft systems.  



“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” said
Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages the mission. “We’re going to be able
study individual planets and start talking about the differences between
planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research
for decades to come. It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”



TESS is a NASA
Astrophysics Explorer
mission led and operated by MIT and managed by
Goddard. George Ricker, of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space
Research, serves as principal investigator for the mission. TESS’s four
wide-field cameras were developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Additional
partners include Orbital ATK, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Space Telescope Science
Institute. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and
observatories worldwide are participants in the
mission.



Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA’s TESS,
SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and more
space and mission
reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force
Station, Florida.



Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing
Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news: www.kenkremer.com –www.spaceupclose.com –
twitter @ken_kremer –
ken
at kenkremer.com





Ken Kremer/SpaceUpClose with the TESS spacecraft inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility clean room
on Feb 20, 2018 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Launch on SpaceX Falcon 9
occurred on April 18, 2018. Credit: Ken
Kremer/SpaceUpClose.com/kenkremer.com

…………………..

Ken’s upcoming outreach events/photos for
sale:




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launches, SpaceX Falcon 9/CRS-15 launch to ISS,  SES-12 comsat launch,
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Ken Kremer

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and more space and mission reports direct from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news. Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics. Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events.

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