New NASA Space Telescope Photo Reveals Thousands of Stars, and Maybe Planets Too

There are more than 200,000 pinpricks of light in this image, each a massive knot of burning hot matter an inconceivable distance away from where you sit on Earth today. As scientists have only begun to confirm this millennium, the odds are good that every one of those stars has at least one planet in its orbit.

By that math, this photograph promises hundreds of thousands of worlds to fill our imaginations, all nestled in a tiny patch of the sky.

05_18_tess_photo_stars TESS's first photo includes more than 200,000 stars. NASA/MIT/TESS

The image comes from a new instrument designed to turn those hopes into real scientific data. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, nicknamed TESS, launched in April and made its way towards the Moon, which is helping it settle into an orbit it could hold for centuries.

As it did so, the scientists who dreamed up the telescope triggered one of its cameras to blink, capturing a two-second snapshot of the sky full of stars that it will spend its lifetime photographing.

Those images will reveal tiny changes in the brightness of that field of stars, catching the faint dimming caused when a planet passes between the telescope and its sun. From that information alone, scientists can calculate a distant world's size and how close it is to its sun. From there, they can turn to more powerful telescopes still being built to perhaps eventually answer the haunting question, "is anyone out there?"

TESS is taking up the task that will soon be abandoned by the Kepler Space Telescope, which has singlehandedly identified 2,619 planets. But Kepler has been at work since 2009, and unlike TESS, it relies on fuel to stay in action. Scientists don't know how long they have before it runs out of gas, but someday soon, NASA will send the spacecraft its last instruction: to turn off the signals it beams home and float timelessly, silently through space.

TESS's new photograph was just a warm-up run: The telescope carries four of these cameras, and when it officially comes on duty, TESS will with every image capture a glimpse of the universe 400 times the size of this postcard home. It is due to beam the first of those images back to Earth in June.

When that image comes, it will kick off the next era of exoplanet identification and analysis, opening our eyes once again to the wonders that surround us in this universe.

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