TESS catches a comet: NASA’s new exoplanet-hunting satellite spots an orbiting space rock

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NASA’s TESS spacecraft has finally begun its mission to find planets outside of our solar system.

But in its first images, it’s not exoplanets the satellite has captured.

TESS spotted a comet soaring roughly 29 million miles (48 million km) from Earth on July 25, just hours before its first official science operations.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) started science operations on July 25 after a series of images to tests its ability to observe a broad region of the sky over a prolonged time.

The sequence revealing Comet/2018 N1, which was first detected by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) on June 29, was captured over the course of 17 hours.

According to NASA, TESS snapped the images in the final hours of its commissioning phase.

Comet 2018 N1 sits in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, and can be seen as a bright white circle passing through the frame from left to right.

‘The comet’s tail, which consists of gases carried away from the comet by an outflow from the Sun called the solar wind, extends to the top of the frame and gradually pivots as the comet glides across the field of view,’ NASA explains.

TESS also spotted stars and what NASA says is stray light from Mars, when the red planet was at its closest to Earth.

The spacecraft underwent weeks of tests ahead of the official start to its mission, after launching this past April.

Its first observations are expected to come early this month, with transmissions sent back to Earth every 13.5 days from then on.

‘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.’ 

Back in May, TESS snapped its first test image from orbit, exactly one month after launching its mission to find undiscovered exoplanets.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) completed a lunar flyby on May 17, passing roughly 5,000 miles from the moon en route to its final working orbit.

This gave it a ‘gravity assist’ to maneuver toward its ultimate destination.

Its initial test photo, captured in a two-second exposure using one of its four cameras, revealed more than 200,000 stars in the Centaurus constellation, with a glimpse at the Coalsack Nebula and the bright star Beta Centauri. 

The $337 million satellite launched on April 18 atop a Falcon 9 rocket on its way toward what scientists have hailed a ‘mission for the ages.’

TESS is equipped with four cameras that will allow it to view 85 percent of the entire sky, as it searches exoplanets orbiting stars less than 300 light-years away.

It hasn’t quite reached its final orbit yet, but is expected to get there within the next few weeks, thanks in part to a little boost from the moon’s gravity on May 17. 

By studying objects much brighter than the Kepler targets, it’s hoped TESS could uncover new clues on the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. 

In its first year of operation, it will map the 13 sectors that make up the southern sky.

Then, the following year, it will scour the northern sectors.

‘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 MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

‘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.’

 

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