CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – Calling all planets orbiting around bright stars: NASA's new Tess spacecraft is looking for a head count.
The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite – Tess for short – is preparing for a two-year search for mysterious worlds lurking in our cosmic backyard. The spacecraft aims to bring thousands of exoplanets or planets beyond our solar system onto the galactic map for future study.
(Credit: SpaceX, NASA)  Life could be out there, whether microbial or advanced, and scientists say Tess and later missions will help answer the age old question of being alone.
"It's very exciting … through human nature's quest for exploration and adventure, and this is an opportunity to see what's next," said Sandra Connelly, director of the science program, on the Sunday before the original planned start, which was postponed until Wednesday.
NASA's newest planet-hunt spacecraft is delayed
Tess flies with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that is due to launch at 16:51 MT from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Here is a small look at the great ambitions of little Tess and her creators.
SPACECRAFT: At 1.5 meters, Tess is shorter than most adults and downright puny compared to most other spacecraft. The observatory is 4 feet wide (1.2 meters), without counting the solar wings, which are folded to launch and weigh only 362 kilograms. NASA says it's somewhere between the size of a refrigerator and a stacked washer and dryer. Four wide-angle cameras are surrounded by a sun visor to keep stray light out as they monitor brightness differences from target stars. Repeated dips would indicate a planet passing by its star.
[Credit: NASA] ORBIT: Tess targets a unique elongated orbit that ends at 45,000 miles Earth is at the other end as far away as the orbit of the moon. NASA insists that there's no way Tess could hit any other satellites or run into the moon, which should never be anywhere near. Lunar gravity will stabilize the spacecraft in this orbit for decades without the need for fuel. Tess will take two weeks to orbit the earth.
JOB: Tess will scan almost the entire sky during his $ 337 million mission, staring at hundreds of thousands, even millions, of small, dim red dwarf stars. Scientists expect to discover thousands of planets that will be further investigated over time with powerful telescopes in space and on Earth. That's why NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other collaborators target stars in hundreds or at most thousands of light years: it will make the detailed search even easier. NASA's Planet Hunting Pioneer, the Kepler Space Telescope, has spent the past nine years focusing on much weaker, farther distant stars and has discovered nearly three-quarters of the previously confirmed 3,700 exoplanets. With Tess, "our planet count will come closer," said MIT researcher Jenn Burt on Sunday. Robert Lockwood of satellite manufacturer Orbital ATK said he expects Tess to take discovery of exoplanets to a whole new level.
ALIENLIFE: Tess has no instruments that can detect life. Its mission is to find and characterize planets that will become the main targets of future telescopes. "Looking at so much of the sky, this kind of real estate, gives us the opportunity to select the best stars for successor research," said Burt. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, launched into space in 2020, will examine the atmospheres of these planets for possible signs of life. Giant telescopes that are still under construction or on the drawing board will also play a role.