April 18, 2018 / 6:02 PM / a month ago

In Florida, all systems go for SpaceX's launch of space telescope

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 18 (Reuters) - SpaceX said all systems and weather were “go” for blast-off on Wednesday of its first high-priority science mission for NASA, a planet-hunting space telescope whose launch was delayed for two days by a rocket-guidance glitch.

The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was due for liftoff from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:51 p.m. EDT, starting the clock on a two-year quest to detect more worlds circling stars beyond our solar system that might harbor life.

NASA’s latest astrophysics instrument will be carried aloft by a Falcon 9 rocket from the fleet of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private launch service, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.

The California-based company has launched cargo missions and other payloads for NASA before, but TESS marks the first under a special certification obtained by SpaceX to carry the space agency’s highest-priority science instruments.

The TESS mission is designed to build on the work of its predecessor, the Kepler space telescope, which has discovered the bulk of some 3,700 exoplanets documented during the past 20 years and is running out of fuel.

NASA expects to pinpoint thousands more previously unknown worlds, perhaps hundreds of them Earth-sized or “super-Earth”-sized - no larger than twice as big as our home planet.

Those are believed the most likely to feature rocky surfaces or oceans and are thus considered the best candidates for life to evolve. Scientists said they hope TESS will ultimately help catalog at least 100 more rocky exoplanets for further study in what has become one of astronomy’s newest fields of exploration.

Roughly the size of a refrigerator with solar-panel wings and equipped with four special cameras, TESS will take about 60 days to reach a highly elliptical, first-of-a-kind orbit looping it between Earth and the moon every 2-1/2 weeks.

Like Kepler, TESS will use a detection method called transit photometry, which looks for periodic, repetitive dips in the visible light of stars caused by planets passing, or transiting, in front of them.

TESS will focus on 200,000 pre-selected stars that are relatively nearby - some of them just dozens of light years away - and thus among the brightest as seen from Earth. That makes them better suited for sensitive follow-up analysis.

TESS will concentrate on stars called red dwarfs, smaller, cooler and longer-lived than our sun. Red dwarfs also have a high propensity for Earth-sized, presumably rocky planets, making them potentially fertile ground for further scrutiny. (Reporting by Joey Roulette from Cape Canaveral, Florida; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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