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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lofts NASA’s TESS probe into space. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX has launched NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, kicking off a mission aimed at surveying nearly the entire sky for exoplanets.

The probe rose into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, sent up from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:51 p.m. ET (3:51 p.m. PT) today.

TESS was supposed to take off on Monday, but the launch teams said they wanted more time for guidance, navigation and control analysis. No issues were reported this time around.

Minutes after launch, SpaceX landed the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster on an autonomous drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You,” hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic. Over the past two years, such landings have become routine.

Meanwhile, the second stage pushed TESS onward to orbit. A series of in-space maneuvers will settle the probe into an unusual planet-hunting orbit. Over the course of a two-year, $377 million mission, the probe’s four telescopic cameras should cover 85 percent of the entire sky.

TESS will target 200,000 of the brightest stars in our celestial neighborhood, looking for the faint dimming of starlight as an exoplanet passes over a given star’s disk. This detection technique, known as the transit method, was pioneered by probes such as NASA’s wildly successful Kepler telescope.

Astronomers expect to identify more than 1,500 exoplanet candidates of all sizes. They say about 500 of those worlds should range from less than Earth’s width to twice its width (so-called “Super Earths”).

Further information about the planets will be gleaned by other telescopes during follow-up observations. The resulting catalog could serve as a guidebook for more powerful planet-hunters to come.

For example, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, now due for launch in 2020, should be able to analyze the chemical composition of alien atmospheres.

Such readings could provide new clues in the search for life beyond our solar system.

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