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SpaceX Launches Planet-Hunting Satellite from Cape Canaveral

Solar panels are deployed on NASA's TESS satellite in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center

NASA said the countdown was uneventful "highlighted by excellent weather and healthy hardware". Now, operators will use the satellite's onboard boosters to push it into its final orbit before beginning its observations of distant worlds.

The satellite - the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or Tess - will scan nearly the entire sky for at least two years, staring at the closest, brightest stars in an effort to find and identify any planets around them.

It's lift-off for Nasa's new era in planet-hunting.

"And so with the planets that TESS finds, we're going to be able to use a different set of telescopes and then try to find out if any of them are indeed somewhat like Earth", she said.

The mission will survey a great swathe of stars, hoping to catch the dips in brightness that occur when orbiting planets traverse their faces. SpaceX has reused 11 of the first stages already, although this particular Falcon 9 rocket was new. At 7:53 p.m. EDT, the twin solar arrays that will power the spacecraft successfully deployed.

"Wow, are we excited".

"TESS will really tell us what about the population of planets in our local solar neighbourhood and especially around red dwarfs", says Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist from the Australian National University.

After approximately 60 days of check-out and instrument testing, the spacecraft will begin its work, the United States space agency added.

Made by Orbital ATK, known for both its aerospace as well as defense tech, TESS launched aboard SpaceX's most famous rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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TESS will observe "transits", or the phenomena when a planet passes in front of its star, changing the star's brightness.

More than 78% of the around 3,700 exoplanets that we have discovered have been found by using this method, according to NASA.

But TESS will scan a broader swath of the heavens to 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.

TESS is created to concentrate on stars less than 300 light-years away, about 200,000 of them.

"We plan to followup atmospheres with JWST and we have the capability to find water vapor and signs of life by way of gases that don't belong that might be attributed to life", MIT exoplanet hunter Sara Seager said via email.

Scientists have divided the sky into 26 sectors. Whereas Kepler stared continuously at one small patch of the sky for 4 years, TESS will search for exoplanets across more than 85% of the sky, an area approximately 350 times larger than Kepler observed during its primary mission.

The planned launch of TESS comes on the heels of NASA delaying the liftoff of its hotly-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope.

TESS was supposed to get the launch on Monday but due to some technical glitch in the Falcon 9 rocket's navigation and guidance system, the launch was delayed.

That mindset is a huge shift, and one TESS will continue.

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