NASA's Planet-Hunting Satellite to Launch on April 18

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NASA's newest planet-hunting telescope is set to launch into orbit on Monday aboard a rocket built by Elon Musk's aerospace company, SpaceX.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is ready to take off at 6:32 pm (22:32 GMT) on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from a NASA launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Launch team of the TESS is standing down in order to run a test involving the guidance navigation system and control analysis of the rocket. If all goes well, the spacecraft will fly past the moon in mid-May for a gravity-assist flyby that will put it in a unique 13.7-day orbit that will repeatedly use lunar gravity to maintain a stable trajectory.

You'll want to hang on after the launch and landing to see TESS officially get sent on its way when it is deployed about 48 minutes after launch.

TESS scientists expect the mission will catalog thousands of planet candidates and vastly increase the current number of known exoplanets. After the launch of the satellite, there will be a two-month testing before the real data starts flowing back to Earth from TESS.

The launching will mark SpaceX's eighth so far this year and the 53rd of a Falcon 9 overall.

TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the "solar neighborhood", a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. With the help of it the researchers plan to track the astronomical transits (passing) phenomenon in which a planet or other large body obscures the star around which it revolves.

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The goal is to look for dips in the brightness of the stars that indicate orbiting planets.

NASA calls TESS its "next step" in discovering exoplanets - a planet that orbits a star in any solar system other than the one Earth calls home - "including those that could support life". This dimming could signal a planet is moving in front of the star.

With Kepler running low on fuel and nearing the end of its life, TESS aims to pick up the search while focusing closer, on planets dozens to hundreds of light years away.

It promises an ability to resolve the atmospheres of some of the new worlds, to look for gases that might hint at the presence of life.

"TESS is very much a trash-treasure sort of mission."
Kepler has found more than 2,300 confirmed exoplanets over its lifetime.

"Kepler is what made us become aware that planets are as common as telephone poles", SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak told Space.com.

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