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How Will TESS Look for Exoplanets?

A black and white image of a strip of images from four cameras showing fields of stars and a Magellanic Clouds in the black of space.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured this strip of stars and galaxies in the southern sky during one 30-minute period in August. Created by combining the view from all four of its cameras, TESS images will be used to discover new exoplanets. Notable features in this swath include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a globular cluster called NGC 104. The brightest stars, Beta Gruis and R Doradus, saturated an entire column of camera detector pixels on the satellite’s second and fourth cameras.

NASA's latest space telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April 2018. This week, planet hunters worldwide received all the data from the first two months of its planet search. This view, from four cameras on TESS, shows just one region of Earth’s southern sky.

The data in the images from TESS will soon lead to discoveries of planets beyond our solar system – exoplanets. (We’re at 3,848 so far!)

Using the analogy of a “Star Wash,” this video explains how raw data of nearby, bright stars collected by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is processed and made ready for scientific investigation. The data is processed at the Science Processing Operations Center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, and it is examined by the science team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). TESS is NASA’s new planet-hunting mission and is expected to find thousands of new worlds in our solar neighborhood.

But first, all that data (about 27 gigabytes a day) needs to be processed. And where do space telescopes like TESS get their data cleaned up? At the Star Wash, of course!

TESS Star Wash

TESS sends about 10 billion pixels of data to Earth at a time. A supercomputer at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley processes the raw data, turning those pixels into measures of a star’s brightness.

TESS Data Scrubber

And that brightness? THAT’S HOW WE FIND PLANETS! A dip in a star’s brightness can reveal an orbiting exoplanet in transit.

TESS Transit

TESS will spend a year studying our southern sky, then will turn and survey our northern sky for another year. Eventually, the space telescope will observe 85 percent of Earth’s sky, including 200,000 of the brightest and closest stars to Earth.

TESS Observations