After almost a year since launch, the first of many discoveries of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have been revealed. Launched into orbit on April 18, 2018, TESS began its mission to survey the skies with advanced equipment to find what other worlds lie out there in the great Cosmos abyss. The highly sensitive cameras aboard TESS capture short duration changes in their designated area, detecting around one hundred such instances so far, in an effort to discover exoplanets orbiting nearby stars. Using follow up observations with ground based telescopes, astronomers have confirmed the existence of three new exoplanets, six supernova explosions, and proceed to investigate an additional 280 exoplanet candidates.
Pi Mensae C
About twice the size of planet Earth, Pi Mensae C orbits its star every six days on a circular orbit in close proximity. Pi Mesnae, its host star, resides in the Mensa constellation, 60 light-years away from Earth and visible to the naked eye. It has a similar mass as our Sun and is known to already host another exoplanet, Pi Mensae B, which is 10 times the mass of Jupiter and on a long, eccentric orbit. Studying Pi Mensa’s exolanets’ curiously contrasting orbit may lead to understanding how this star system formed.
LHS 3884b is a terrestrial planet located in the Indus constellation 49 light-years away orbiting a cool star. The exoplanet orbits its star, an M-type dwarf roughly 20% the size of our Sun, every 11 hours. Due to its close proximity to its star, astronomers speculate that some of the planet’s rocky features may form pools of lava during the day time when exposing its surface.
The third confirmed exoplanet, HD 21749b, is three times Earth’s size, and 23 times its mass. HD 21749b orbits its star every 36 days at close proximity, where the surface temperature is near 300 F (150 C). Though astronomers are unsure what the surface might look like, some speculate it tp be a water world.
What makes this finding particularly interesting is evidence that a second candidate exoplanet roughly the size as Earth may orbit the same star every eight days. Confirmation of this mystery fourth world would mark the smallest TESS planet discovered since its mission began.
Alongside its hunt for exoplanets, TESS has observed several other events of interest. Six supernovae emerging from distant galaxies were initially detected by TESS, then confirmed by ground based telescopes. To note how far we’ve come technologically, starting in 2009 during Kepler’s first four years of operation, it caught six similar events, whereas TESS captured just as many within its first month. Early observations offer researchers a measuring stick to better analyze future supernovae, and perhaps better classify them once the technology allows it.
As of today, we know of two ways supernovae form:
1) Merging of orbiting white dwarf stars
2) A White dwarf siphoning gas from a star, consuming its mass, becoming unstable and boom goes the supernova.
It is currently unknown which scenario is most common, and whether or not other scenarios exist. TESS is equipped with the technology to better detect and determine.
Scientific data from these first two TESS observations were released to the scientific community by Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where more than 1 million TESS images were downloaded within the first few days.
The mission, said to last two years, is half way finished and already releasing troves of data , with observations of over 300 million stars and galaxies being studied and analyzed.
Estimates of as many as 10,000 new exoplanets as well as hundreds of supernovae and other stellar and extragalactic activity are expected.