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TESS sky image
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, captured this snapshot of the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) and the star R Doradus (left) with a single detector on one of its four wide-field cameras on Aug. 7. (NASA / MIT / TESS Photo)

The first science images from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite focus on a strip of southern sky that includes the two nearest dwarf galaxies and plenty of potential targets in the probe’s planet search.

“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study,” Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters, said today in a news release. “This ‘first light’ science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”

TESS was launched from Florida in April by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the mission team has been spending the past few months getting the spacecraft ready for what’s expected to be a two-year mission.

The newly released imagery was captured by TESS’ four wide-field cameras during a 30-minute session on Aug. 7. The mosaic shows parts of a dozen constellations in the southern hemisphere, from Capricornus to Pictor.

Bright spots in the image include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two satellite dwarf galaxies within our Milky Way galaxy’s sphere of influence.

TESS view of southern sky
TESS’ four wide-field cameras, each with four detectors, captured this annotated “first light” image of the sky during a 30-minute period on Aug. 7. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / MIT / TESS Photo)

“This swath of the sky’s southern hemisphere includes more than a dozen stars we know have transiting planets based on previous studies from ground observatories,” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

The focus of TESS’ $377 million mission is to identify what’s expected to be more than 1,500 planets, based on the subtle dimming of starlight that occurs when they pass over their parent stars.

It’s the same technique used by NASA’s Kepler telescope, which focused on a small patch of sky that straddled the northern constellations Lyra and Cygnus. In contrast, TESS will survey about 85 percent of the night sky, targeting stars that are 30 to 300 light-years away.

The four cameras are programmed to study a strip of sky for 27 days straight, and then move on to the next patch. Thirteen sectors in the southern celestial hemisphere will be covered first, followed a year later by 13 sectors in the northern hemisphere.

TESS’ planets would be relatively close by astronomical standards, and scientists plan to follow up on their finds with more detailed observations relating to planetary atmospheres and densities. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and a new generation of ground-based telescopes will be well-suited for the follow-up work.

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