Videos: TESS to search nearby stars for exoplanets + Using AI to find exoplanets

The space telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is set to be launched on April 16th on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. TESS will continue the hunt for planets orbiting other stars as the Kepler exoplanet hunter‘s mission comes to an end.

NASA Prepares to Launch Next Mission to Search Sky for New Worlds

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is undergoing final preparations in Florida for its April 16 launch to find undiscovered worlds around nearby stars, providing targets where future studies will assess their capacity to harbor life.

“One of the biggest questions in exoplanet exploration is: If an astronomer finds a planet in a star’s habitable zone, will it be interesting from a biologist’s point of view?” said George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge, which is leading the mission. “We expect TESS will discover a number of planets whose atmospheric compositions, which hold potential clues to the presence of life, could be precisely measured by future observers.”

On March 15, the spacecraft passed a review that confirmed it was ready for launch. For final launch preparations, the spacecraft will be fueled and encapsulated within the payload fairing of its SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

TESS will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. With the help of a gravitational assist from the Moon, the spacecraft will settle into a 13.7-day orbit around Earth. Sixty days after launch, and following tests of its instruments, the satellite will begin its initial two-year mission.

At a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., astrophysics experts discussed the upcoming launch of NASA’s next planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

Four wide-field cameras will give TESS a field-of-view that covers 85 percent of our entire sky. Within this vast visual perspective, the sky has been divided into 26 sectors that TESS will observe one by one. The first year of observations will map the 13 sectors encompassing the southern sky, and the second year will map the 13 sectors of the northern sky.

The spacecraft will be looking for a phenomenon known as a transit, where a planet passes in front of its star, causing a periodic and regular dip in the star’s brightness. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft used the same method to spot more than 2,600 confirmed exoplanets, most of them orbiting faint stars 300 to 3,000 light-years away

“We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. “TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds whose properties can be probed by NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and other missions.”

TESS will concentrate on stars less than 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler’s targets. The brightness of these target stars will allow researchers to use spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light, to determine a planet’s mass, density and atmospheric composition. Water, and other key molecules, in its atmosphere can give us hints about a planets’ capacity to harbor life.

“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” said Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages the mission. “We’re going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come. It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Through the TESS Guest Investigator Program, the worldwide scientific community will be able to participate in investigations outside of TESS’s core mission, enhancing and maximizing the science return from the mission in areas ranging from exoplanet characterization to stellar astrophysics and solar system science.

“I don’t think we know everything TESS is going to accomplish,” Rinehart said. “To me, the most exciting part of any mission is the unexpected result, the one that nobody saw coming.”

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT and managed by Goddard. George Ricker, of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, serves as principal investigator for the mission. TESS’s four wide-field cameras were developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Space Telescope Science Institute. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

For more information on TESS, go to:

Chris Shallue of Google and Dr. Jeffrey Smith of the SETI Institute discuss using artificial intelligence (AI) techniques for locating and analyzing exoplanets:

From the caption:

To uncover the mysteries of the universe, astronomers are becoming greedy, making more observations than they can possibly analyze manually. Large photometric surveys from space telescopes like Kepler and the future TESS are no exception and today modern astronomers use artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to help them reveal the existence of exoplanets hidden in many years of observations of hundreds of thousands of stars.

For this SETI Talk, we invited two researchers involved in the Kepler mission and AI to discuss the potential of neural networks to transform astronomy.

Jeff Smith, Data scientist at the SETI Institute, has developed data processing and planet detection algorithms for Kepler since 2010 and is now involved in developing the pipeline for the future TESS mission.

Chris Shallue, a senior software engineer at Google AI has used a neural network to analyze archival data from the Kepler Space Telescope to reveal the existence of two unknown exoplanets, named Kepler-90i and Kepler-80g. After presenting their recent work, we will discuss the impact of this new mode of scientific discovery, where artificial intelligence can assist humans in mapping out parts of the galaxy that have not yet been fully revealed.


Videos: Insight mission launching in May will study interior of Mars

On May 5, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled to launch NASA’s InSight mission to Mars from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Insight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport)

will study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all rocky planets formed, including Earth and its moon. The lander’s instruments include a seismometer to detect marsquakes and a probe that will monitor the flow of heat in the planet’s subsurface.

Here is a short video about the mission, which will reach Mars in November:

And another video of  a panel discussion about the mission. The panel participants included: :

• Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington
• Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL
• Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager at JPL
• Jaime Singer, InSight instrument deployment lead at JPL

Here is a NASA release about Insight:

NASA is Ready to Study the Heart of Mars

NASA is about to go on a journey to study the center of Mars.

The space agency held a news conference today at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, detailing the next mission to the Red Planet.

InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is a stationary lander scheduled to launch as early as May 5. It will be the first mission ever dedicated to Mars’ deep interior, and the first NASA mission since the Apollo moon landings to place a seismometer on the soil of another planet.

For JPL’s Bruce Banerdt, it’s also a labor of love. Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, has worked for more than 25 years to make the mission a reality.

“In some ways InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation four-and-a-half billion years ago,” Banerdt said. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon and even planets in other solar systems.”

Scientists hope that by detecting marsquakes and other phenomena inside the planet, InSight can better understand how Mars formed. InSight carries a suite of sensitive instruments to gather these data; unlike a rover mission, they require a spacecraft that sits still and carefully places its instruments on the Martian surface.

NASA isn’t the only agency excited about the mission. Several European partners contributed instruments, or instrument components, for the InSight mission. For example, France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) led a multinational team that built an ultra-sensitive seismometer for detecting marsquakes. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) developed a thermal probe that can bury itself up to 16 feet (5 meters) underground and measure heat flowing from inside the planet.

“InSight is a truly international space mission,” said Project Manager Tom Hoffman of JPL. “Our partners have delivered incredibly capable instruments that will make it possible to gather unique science after we land.”

Looking deep into Mars will let scientists understand how different its crust, mantle and core are from their counterparts on Earth. In a sense, Mars is the exoplanet next door: a nearby example of how gas, dust and heat combine and arrange themselves into a planet.

InSight is currently at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California undergoing final preparation before launch. On Wednesday, it completed what’s known as a spin test: the entire spacecraft is rotated at high speeds to confirm its center of gravity.

That’s critical for its entry, descent and landing on Mars in November, Hoffman said. In the next month, the spacecraft will be mounted to its rocket, connections between them will be checked, and the launch team will go through a final training.

“This next month will be exciting,” Banerdt said. “We’ve got some final work to do, but we’re almost ready to go to Mars.”

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the InSight Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space, Denver, built and tested the spacecraft. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

For more information about InSight, visit:


Following the demise of China’s Tiangong-1 space station

The Chinese derelict Tiangong-1 space station will soon hit Earth’s atmosphere as it makes an unpowered, uncontrolled reentry. Much of it will be burnt up but some of the 9 tonne spacecraft will reach the ground (or more likely, the ocean waves).  The current estimate is that the station will meet its doom sometime on April 1st (and that’s no joke).

The Virtual Telescope’s WebTV  is offering updates on the space station’s return: Watch China’s Tiangong-1 Space Station in Real Time As It Nears Its Demise –

It’s unclear how much of Tiangong-1 will survive the journey, but it’s possible some pieces will fall to the ground. The station has an orbital inclination between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes, so it could fall anywhere within those bands. But experts point out that Tiangong-1 is much smaller than the NASA Skylab space station, parts of which crashed into remote areas of Australia in 1979, so most of it may burn up during re-entry. Tiangong-1 weighs only 8.5 metric tons (9.4 tons), compared to Skylab’s 100 tons.

Tracking of the station’s orbit is available at

More about Tiangong-1:


Videos: TMRO Orbit 11.12 – Exploring the solar system with Dr. Chris McKay

The latest episode of is now available on line: Exploring the solar system with Dr. Chris McKay – Orbit 11.12 – TMRO

We are joined by Dr. Chris McKay from NASA Ames Research Center to talk about the search for life in our solar system.

News topics and launches covered:

2014 MU69 gets a name
Humanity Star
Once Around In A Billion Years

Launches: Soyuz launched Expedition 55-56

TMRO is viewer supported:

TMRO shows are crowd funded. If you like this episode consider contributing to help us to continue to improve. Head over to for per-episode contribution or for monthly contributions and reward information.

Recent SpacePod short reports: