SpaceX is getting set to launch a satellite for NASA that aims to discover thousands of planets over two years.
NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is slated to head into orbit on Monday night aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Nicknamed "the planet hunter," the $337 million TESS is a follow-up to NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which spent the last eight years searching the skies for as many planets outside our solar system as possible.
Kepler discovered over 2,600 planets but is estimated to be only months away from running out of fuel and ending its mission. TESS will use its four wide-angle cameras to scan 400 times as much sky as Kepler, focusing on a range closer to Earth.
"It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth," TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker, a senior Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist, said in a statement.
TESS will focus on each section of the Earth's sky for about a month at a time until it has surveyed both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.
Built by Orbital ATK – which is set to be acquired by defense giant Northrop Grumman this year for $7.8 billion – TESS will use what Ricker called a "Goldilocks orbit" to photograph the skies. The orbit has never been used before and offers a sweet spot for TESS to operate. Using a series of complex maneuvers, TESS will boost away from the Earth and, using the gravity of the Moon as a catapult, end up in an orbit that extends about 232,000 miles beyond Earth.
At only 800 pounds, TESS is a fraction of the weight Falcon 9 can lift into orbit. NASA gave SpaceX the contract to launch TESS into orbit above the Earth at a cost of $87 million.