This afternoon, SpaceX will send a satellite the size of a refrigerator to NASA's orbit to search for distant worlds outside of our Solar System. Called TESS, it is the first NASA spacecraft SpaceX will launch, designed to look deep into the cosmos.
TESS is NASA's newest exoplanet hunter. The probe has the task of looking at stars from tens to hundreds of light years from Earth, looking to see if they blink. When a planet passes in front of a distant star, it slightly attenuates the light of the star. TESS will measure these flashes from a 13.7-day orbit that extends to the distance of the Moon.
It will take about 60 days after launch for TESS to reach its intended orbit
The satellite will not reach its final orbit today. Instead, Falcon 9 will place TESS on a highly elliptical path around Earth first. From there, TESS will slowly adjust its orbit in the next few months by turning its on-board engine several times. The spacecraft will even fly over the moon next month, obtaining a gravitational boost that will help the vehicle reach its final route around the Earth. In general, it will take around 60 days after launch for TESS to reach its intended orbit; Scientific observations are scheduled to begin in June.
SpaceX is using a new Falcon 9 for this launch, which will take off from the company's launchpad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But the company plans to recover the rocket after takeoff. The first 14-story stage of the Falcon 9 will attempt to land on one of SpaceX's remote-controlled boats in the Atlantic Ocean after launch. It's the first landing that SpaceX has tried since the Falcon Heavy test flight in early February. If successful, the company can use this vehicle to fly its next cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA, according to Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of construction and flight reliability at SpaceX.
An artistic representation of the TESS spacecraft. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
The company will also attempt to land the nose cone of Falcon 9 in the Atlantic. Also known as the payload fairing, the nose cone is the bulbous structure that surrounds the satellite on top of the rocket. Once the rocket is in space, the fairing is divided into two halves, and both return to Earth. Each half deploys a parachute to slow down, and then a ship equipped with a giant net tries to catch one of the halves before reaching the ocean. SpaceX has not been able to catch any of its fairings yet, and will not catch fairings today. The company's net boat, called Mr. Steven, is on the west coast and could not reach Florida. However, SpaceX will still try to land the fairing in the ocean today to get more data that will help the company perfect the recovery technique.
NASA has a launching opportunity almost every day until April 26
The takeoff is currently scheduled for 6:32 PM ET, and SpaceX only has a launch window of 30 seconds to put the rocket into orbit. However, if the vehicle does not come up today, there are many backup release dates. NASA has a launching opportunity almost every day until April 26. If, for some reason, SpaceX is not launched before day 26, the mission will have to retreat as NASA shifts its focus to the launch of another large spacecraft, the InSight Mars lander, which is taking off from California. InSight is scheduled to launch on May 5, and it is a higher priority for NASA since the vehicle can only take off during a relatively short window when Earth and Mars line up in their orbits this year.
So far, everything is on track for a launch today. SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 to its launch pad last night, and there is an 80 percent chance that the weather will cooperate, according to Patrick Air Force Base. The NASA mission coverage will begin on NASA TV at 6PM ET, and the live broadcast of SpaceX will begin about 15 minutes before takeoff.