At 6:51 pm On April 18, NASA's latest NASA spacecraft, TIT, was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. CU Boulder Assistant Professor Zach Berta-Thompson was on the spot for the start. He called the experience "frightening but unbelievable".
Berta-Thompson of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) is one of several CU Boulder researchers contributing to the TESS mission. And he's excited: Now in orbit around Earth, TESS will soon lead the search for planets outside our solar system.
Scientists predict that TESS could locate thousands of these exoplanets through an almost 360-degree film of the sky. But the value of the mission goes beyond just putting needles on a map, said Berta-Thompson. When TESS discovers new planets, astronomers will be able to answer a series of questions about distant worlds: what makes their atmospheres and rocky as the Earth or icy as Neptune?
"TESS will provide a catalog that astronomers will be able to flip through for decades or centuries to study the properties of exoplanets," said Berta-Thompson.
The Mission is a successor to NASA's Kepler Spacecraft, operated by CU Boulder's Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). During nearly 1
However, TESS is not just a replacement for this older mission. The satellite was designed to find planets that are much closer to Earth than the ones Kepler could see – 100 light-years or less from the Sun's Earth, right next door in astronomical terms. And closer planets are easier for astronomers to observe, Berta-Thompson said, "TESS will find them, and then we'll turn every other big telescope at them."
Berta-Thompson began working at TESS in 2013. He was a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institution that led the mission.
He has transferred his work to CU Boulder and is eager to learn more about exoplanetic atmospheres. Are they rich in carbon dioxide like Venus or how Uranus dipped in hydrogen and helium? In particular, he is fascinated by a class of planets that scientists call "mini-neptune" or "super-earths". As their names suggest, these planets are about 1.5 to 3 times the size of the earth and are not represented in our own solar system. (Kepler had about 1,200 mini-neptunes during his tenure, but most were too far away for scientists to explore more closely.)
Berta-Thompson hopes TESS will change that and reveal hundreds more mini-neptunes enough for him to really dig. "Some of them are systems that I know I will study the rest of my career," he said.
Other CU Boulder scientists will contribute to this mission. Timothy Brown, a research associate at CASA and co-researcher of the mission, examines which signals from TESS are real planets and which other astrophysical objects. Sebastian Pineda, postdoctoral fellow at LASP, is one of the few scientists who will use the satellite to search for stars instead of searching for planets.
Pineda explained that TESS looks for exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of stars. When a planet orbits in front of its sun, the light darkens from that sun. Pineda will use the brightness sensitivity of TESS to study the behavior of small stars, including the frequency of their reflections and the dynamics of their atmospheres, including star spots.
"That's a nice thing on a mission like TESS," he said. "While it has a primary mission, its data can be used for a variety of things."
Berta-Thompson said that among all the great science that will enable TESS, he was still caught in the excitement of going to Cape Canaveral.
"It's really fun to see everyone in Florida get off to a flying start," he said before taking off on Wednesday. "I think there are a lot of curious scientists and engineers who want to see what TESS will see, we've been waiting a long time for it."