SpaceX just launched a planet-hunting NASA space telescope — but its hunt for alien planets won’t start for 2 months

One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets lifts off with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). SpaceX/YouTube

  • NASA launched a new planet-hunting telescope on Wednesday aboard a SpaceX rocket.
  • The telescope, called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), may find thousands of worlds relatively close to Earth.
  • Scientists hope to discover about 50 small, rocky planets that may be habitable to alien life.
  • Now that TESS is in space, it will take more than 2 months to pull off a series of maneuvers that will slip it into an unprecedented orbit.

SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, just successfully launched NASA’s newest planet-hunting telescope into space.

The new spacecraft is called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS.

Scientists at MIT who planned the mission say they could discover thousands of new worlds within the first 24 months of its mission – including 50 Earth-size planets that might be habitable to aliens.

“TESS will discover new potential planets orbiting bright host stars relatively close to Earth,” SpaceX said in a press release. “In a two-year survey of the solar neighbourhood, TESS will search for tell-tale dips in the brightness of stars that indicate an orbiting planet regularly transiting across the face of its star.”

Tess transiting exoplanet survey satellite telescope illustration nasa
An illustration of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite in space. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

A 230-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket heaved the telescope toward space at 6:51 p.m. EDT.

SpaceX also recovered the rocket’s 16-story booster in a bid to save millions of dollars, landing it on a robotic barge named “Of Course I Stil Love You.”

“This marks the 24th successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage,” Lauren Lyons, a SpaceX engineer and host of the company’s live video feed of the launch, said during the webcast on YouTube.

The telescope’s journey is far from over, however.

The spacecraft must pull off a complex ballet of maneuvers in space – including a flyby of the moon – to put it into an unprecedented orbit around Earth.

Transiting exoplanet survey satellite tess orbit moon nasa
A graphic that shows the series of complex maneuvers TESS must pull off to hunt for alien planets near Earth. NASA via

TESS will take 68 days to get onto the path it needs: an orbit designed to help the telescope scan 85% of the night sky over 2 years, reeling in thousands of never-before-discovered worlds.

For more detailed information about how the telescope works, what it may discover, and why the mission could lead to a revolution in the search for habitable planets, check out Business Insider’s in-depth story about the TESS mission.

This story was updated with new information. It was originally published at 11:45 p.m. EDT on April 15, 2018.