TESS: NASA's New Planet-Hunting Spacecraft Is Set for Launch—and It Could Help Us Find Alien Life

NASA is making the final preparations for the launch of its latest planet-hunting spacecraft. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is set to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 16.

The spacecraft, which recently passed its final pre-launch review, will scour the skies, monitoring more than 200,000 stars for signs of undiscovered exoplanets. Some of these planets may lie in their star's habitable zone and could become targets for future research missions that would assess their ability to harbor life.

TESS will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and is equipped with four wide-field cameras that will enable it to search the majority of the night sky.

"TESS will search 85 percent of our sky for exoplanets orbiting bright stars and our nearest stellar neighbors," Martin Still, NASA headquarters program scientist for TESS, told Newsweek. "It will allow us to follow up planet detections using other telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, to then better explore the properties of these planets."

Over a two-year period, TESS will hunt for exoplanets with the help of a phenomenon known as transit—where a planet passes in front of its star (from an observer's point of view) causing a periodic and regular dip in brightness.

Astronomers often use this method to identify the presence of planets. NASA's Kepler spacecraft, for example, has identified more than 2,600 confirmed exoplanets this way.

An illustration shows the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star. TESS will identify thousands of potential new planets for further study and observation. NASA/GSFC

"We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars," Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.

The focus of TESS's search will be on bright stars less than 300 light-years away. Using the bright light generated by these stars, researchers will be able to use spectroscopy—a technique that measures the absorption and emission of light—to determine a planet's mass, density and atmospheric composition, which could provide insights into whether or not it harbors life.

"TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study," Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland—which manages the mission—said in a statement.

"We're going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It's the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research."