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Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission and Jupiter at Opposition

This article appeared in the May 4, 2018 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission and Jupiter at Opposition

Artist concept of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite with black background by NASA.


By Vinita Domier

Special to the Enterprise


On April 18, 2018, NASA successfully launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a space telescope with the mission to search for planets orbiting the nearby brightest stars visible in the sky. During its primary 2-year mission, TESS is expected to find thousands of extra-solar planets using the transiting method of detection as it surveys the entire sky. As these planets are not part of our solar system family of eight planets, they are also known as exoplanets.


A planetary transit occurs when a planet moves across the disk of its parent star. From the vantage point of an observer in alignment with and in front of the planet and the star, the planet would appear as a small black dot transiting in a straight line across bright face of the star. A highly sensitive observer would notice a slight dimming of the star’s light during the transit.


TESS and NASA’s Kepler space telescopes use very sensitive photometric cameras to observe stars. If a perceptible dip in the light output of a star is detected, then an exoplanet is suspected. Repeated observations of the dip will help confirm the presence of the exoplanet, and aid in determining its characteristics such as size, orbital distance, orbital period, etc. Multiple observed dips in the star’s light output would indicate the presence of an exoplanetary system with two or more planets orbiting the parent star.   


TESS will observe around 500,000 nearby bright stars from a highly elliptical, high earth orbit that will take it around the earth twice in the time that the moon orbits the earth once. Locked in this unique 2:1 resonance orbit, TESS will survey the entire sky in 26 observational sections, concentrating on the southern half of the sky in its first year of operation and the northern half of the sky during the mission’s second year.


Kepler, launched in 2009 and nearing its operational end, has been observing small sections of the sky and thus far has detected around 5000 confirmed and potential exoplanets. Astronomers are speculating that TESS would ultimately detected more than 20,000 confirmed exoplanets as its survey area is 400 times bigger than Kepler’s.


Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system, is easily observable throughout May nights as it reaches opposition on May 8. As the sun and the planet are on opposite sides of the earth during this alignment, one body rises while the other sets. Thus, Jupiter is visible all night from sunset to sunrise as a small bright disk to the unaided eye, shining brightly at visual magnitude -2.4 in the Libra constellation. The cloud bands on Jupiter’s surface and its Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) are viewable in a small telescope or pair of binoculars.   


Join the Davis Astronomy Club on Saturday, May 5, starting at 7:30pm at the Explorit Science Center (3141 5th Street, Davis) when we will discuss TESS’s mission to detect exoplanets. Everyone is invited to the free meeting indoors, followed by a star party outdoors where we will observe Jupiter and its closest moons, weather permitting.



Explorit’s coming events:


●      Visit our Feathers exhibition! Explorit’s Exploration Gallery is open to the public every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-5:00 p.m.  Admission is $5.00 per person; Explorit members, teachers and children 2 and under are free.

●      Summer Camp registration is open now! Visit for a full schedule and to register online. Or call 530-756-0191.



Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit, or “like” us on Facebook at


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