NASA's new TESS satellite, a space telescope designed to discover alien planets far outside of our solar system, is gearing up to begin its two-year mission to potentially answer the undying question: are we alone? On Friday, exactly a month after the satellite first launched into space, NASA released a preview of the first image it beamed back to Earth. It's breathtaking.
As NASA explained in a tweet, the image (shown below) is the result of a two-second exposure conducted as part of commissioning the satellite's camera equipment. While the space agency describes it as merely a "preview," the image shows a staggering 200,000+ stars centered on the southern constellation Centaurus. In the upper right corner, you'll see the edge of the Coalsack Nebula and on the lower left edge, you'll see bright star Beta Centauri. It's not the clearest photo, but damn that's a lot of stars.
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As part of camera commissioning, the #TESS science team snapped a two-second test exposure using one of the four @NASA_TESS cameras. A science-quality image, also referred to as a “first light” image, is expected to be released in June. Enjoy this preview! @TESSatMITpic.twitter.com/3hryLLp52i
TESS, which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will ultimately cover more than 400 times the amount of space captured in the image by the time its mission is completed. More specifically, the satellite will closely monitor distant stars for temporary drops in brightness that occur during planetary transits, or when planets appear to cross in front of them. NASA expects it will discover thousands of exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) in what's literally a search for new worlds.
"This first-ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, around a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances," NASA explains on the official TESS website. "No ground-based survey can achieve this feat."
Here's the spectacular image in full:
NASA said it expects to release an official science quality, or "first light," version of the image sometime in June. In the meantime, there's plenty to marvel at in the preview image. But dazzling photos are only the beginning -- we could very well have much, more more to get excited about as TESS begins scanning the skies.
“We are thrilled TESS is on its way to help us discover worlds we have yet to imagine, worlds that could possibly be habitable, or harbor life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said shortly after the satellite's April 18 launch. “With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe.”
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Tony Merevick is Senior News Editor at Thrillist and is increasingly tired of this world's crap, so a planet-hunting satellite is great news. Send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.