200,000 Stars Twinkle in First Test Image From NASA’s Planet-Hunting Satellite

Once its cameras are calibrated, TESS will capture 400 times as much sky as this test image

TESS test image.jpg
This test image from one of the four cameras on TESS captures a portion of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. NASA/MIT/TESS

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has returned its first test image, and it's breathtaking. The two-second test exposure from one of the four cameras on TESS captures more than 200,000 stars, according to NASA.

As Smithsonian.com reported last month, TESS left Earth in April to hunt exoplanets, which it does using what’s known as the transit method. This means that TESS’ instruments watch great regions of the sky for dips in starlight—a sign that an orbiting planet has crossed the star's face.

TESS will focus its sights on stars 300 light years or closer, scanning about 85 percent of the sky over the course of two years. It was estimated that TESS will catalogue 500,000 stars and spot thousands of potential exoplanets.

At its center, the image captures the southern constellation Centaurus, which includes the closest active galaxy to Earth known as Centaurus A that lies 11 million light years away.

TESS captured the shot on May 17 after successfully completing a flyby of the moon, passing as close as 5,000 miles. That flyby helped push the craft on its way to its final working orbit, the agency says.

What’s amazing is that this test image isn’t even the best quality we’re going to get. TESS will begin its search for exoplanets in mid-June, after which it will complete camera calibrations.

Once that happens, the spacecraft will begin to snap “science-quality” images, or what’s known as first light images. With its cameras calibrated, TESS will be able to cover 400 times as much sky as what’s visible in the test image.

As Eric Mack reports for CNET, in its search for exoplanets, TESS could get us closer to discovering if life exists on some of these far-flung places. The agency’s James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2020, will allow scientists to study the atmospheres of the many exoplanets TESS is bound to discover.

The Unique Orbit of NASA's Newest Planet Hunter

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