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SpaceX just sent TESS, NASA's new planet hunter, into space

Elon Musk's rocket company launches a satellite designed to search for other Earths.

NASA
Now Playing: Watch this: Watch NASA's TESS satellite launch on a SpaceX Falcon...
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NASA's next-generation planet-hunting satellite is on its way to hunt for worlds that could have signs of alien life after being sent to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. 

TESS blasts off aboard a Falcon 9.

Video capture by Alexandra Able / CNET / SpaceX

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:52 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday. Once it settles into its orbit and completes about two months of testing, it'll begin to survey a huge swath of the sky to find potential Earth-like planets around nearby stars in our galaxy.

"TESS is going to essentially provide the catalog -- like the phone book, if you will -- of all the best planets for following up, for looking at their atmospheres and studying more about them," MIT astrophysics professor and TESS Deputy Science Director Sara Seager tells me in the video below.

Now Playing: Watch this: NASA set to launch exoplanet-hunting satellite
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SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on the droneship "Of Course I Still Love You" in the Atlantic Ocean about eight minutes after launch. The landing is the 24th successful return to Earth for a Falcon 9.

About 48 minutes after launch, TESS and its four wide-field cameras designed to watch for planets passing in front of their host stars separated from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Then, an hour after launch, the satellite's solar panels were unfurled for the first time so it could begin firing up all systems and start a long testing phase. 

The first confirmation of planets beyond our solar system didn't come until the mid-1990s. Over the next 15 years or so, less than 500 planets would be added to the list, most of them gas giants hundreds of times more massive than Earth.

Only a handful of the planets discovered before 2009 could be considered terrestrial or vaguely Earth-like.  That was the year the Kepler Space Telescope launched, the world's first space telescope designed with planet-spotting in mind. Over the next several years, Kepler added to the known exoplanet catalog thousands more planets, including hundreds of rocky worlds, dozens of super-Earths and a number of worlds in the habitable zone.

"Kepler went up, and was this huge success, and researchers said, 'We can do this kind of science, and there are planets everywhere," said TESS team member Jennifer Burt, an MIT postdoc. "And I think that was really the scientific check box that we needed for NASA to say, 'OK, TESS makes a lot of sense now.' It'll enable not just detecting planets, but finding planets that we can thoroughly characterize after the fact."  

The exoplanets TESS sees will be observed later using upcoming telescopes like NASA's James Webb Telescope, set for launch in 2020, or the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) now under construction in Chile. By teaming up with these more powerful observatories, TESS may help find the first signs of life on another world, sometimes called biomarkers by scientists.

"TESS will produce a legacy of planets that are ideal laboratories for observation with the GMT," said Patrick McCarthy, the GMT's vice president for operations and external relations. "There are many examples of science that GMT and TESS will enable jointly. One involves the study of planetary atmospheres and the search for biomarkers -- molecules like oxygen and methane that are indicators of biochemistry."

Some early images from TESS may be taken within a few weeks, though the main stream of data won't begin streaming back to Earth for a few months. 

"I don't think we know everything TESS is going to accomplish," said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "To me, the most exciting part of any mission is the unexpected result, the one that nobody saw coming." 

First published April 18, 3:51 p.m. PT. 
Updates, 4 p.m.: Adds news of the successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage; 4:52 p.m.: Adds mention of the successful deployment of TESS and its solar arrays.  

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