NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft TESS is now on its mission to search for new worlds

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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) successfully launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9.
NASA Television

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

The latest of NASA‘s incredible planet-hunting space telescopes was launched today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS to its friends), this exciting new mission promises to provide the next great leap forward in our understanding of our place in the universe.


Over the next two years, TESS is likely to find thousands of new exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars – and will help to reveal the degree to which our Solar system is unique in the cosmos.

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In doing so, it will build on the fascinating results of the past few decades, cementing our place in the “Exoplanet Era”.

Illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in front of a lava planet orbiting its host star.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The Kepler revolution

At the end of 2008, the year before NASA’s earlier planet-hunting telescope Kepler launched, about 300 exoplanets had been discovered. Today, the number is an order of magnitude larger: more than 3,700.

Kepler discovered more than 2,300 exoplanets, with a further 2,200 or so “candidate” planets still awaiting followup. This incredible haul is the result of the spacecraft staring, unblinking, at the night sky, watching for the tiny flickers that reveal planets passing between us and their host stars.

An illustration of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft that carried out the first great census of the Exoplanet Era.
NASA Ames/ W Stenzel

In essence, Kepler carried out the first great census of the Exoplanet Era. It taught us that planets are ubiquitous – a standard and natural byproduct of the formation of stars.

But the vast majority of the stars around which Kepler found planets were very faint and very distant. This makes it a great challenge for observers on the ground to follow up on those discoveries and learn more about the planets the spacecraft revealed.

Along comes TESS

Whereas Kepler focused for four years on just one small patch of the northern sky, TESS will target stars across almost the whole night sky. In doing so, it will survey some of the brightest stars in the sky – making the task of following up on its myriad discoveries far easier.

TESS consists of four cameras, configured to give it an observation sector that covers an area slightly larger than a 90° arc on the sky.

Image showing how TESS’ four cameras will be used to survey the night sky, sector by sector.

TESS will watch that observation sector continually for just over 27 days, never blinking. The spacecraft will then pivot around, swinging to target its next sector.

In this manner, over the course of a year, the spacecraft will target almost the entirety of one hemisphere of the sky. After that, it will flip over, and spend the next year watching the other hemisphere.

TESS will cover much more than Kepler in its hunt for exoplanets.

For the first year TESS will be gazing to the south, scouring skies that are best seen from the southern hemisphere, finding planets orbiting the very stars you see when you step outside and look up at the night sky, right here in Australia.

Many stars, many planets?

TESS’s main mission will involve it observing a total of 200,000 stars, measuring their brightness every single minute that they fall within its field of view. To do this, it will process images before sending them back to Earth, extracting just the data on those stars to send back to the Earth.

TESS will also provide full-frame images (a picture of the spacecraft’s full field of view) every half an hour, yielding a trove of tens of millions of objects observed.

TESS will process data on board the spacecraft, to make the amount sent back to Earth manageable.

Put all that together, and the expected planet yield should be enormous. Based on the statistics of planet discoveries to date, it is likely that TESS will find at least a couple of thousand potential planets around its main target stars, while those in the full-frame images might yield tens of thousands of additional candidates.

These numbers are incredible, and TESS will revolutionise our understanding of our place in the universe. But such amazing results bring with them a unique problem – and one that we, in Australia, are ideally placed to help solve.

Too many planets, too little time

The reason that only half of the Kepler mission’s candidate planets have been confirmed is that doing so requires extensive follow-up work from the ground.

Astronomers have to rule out other effects that could cause the behaviour seen in the potential planet’s host star before we can be certain that we’re really seeing evidence of a new planet.

Most of the stars observed by Kepler are simply too faint for that kind of work to be carried out from the ground – except, perhaps, with the largest telescopes on the planet. Getting time on those telescopes is challenging – all of the world’s other astronomers covet that time too, for their own projects.

Quite simply, it is a case of too many planets, too little time.

Too many potential exoplanets, too little time.
NASA, ESA, and M. Kornmesser (ESO)

The problem is only going to get worse with TESS. When the first few planets were found, in the late 20th century, the discoveries came in a trickle. Those discoveries were easy for scientists to drink in and follow up, and all was good.

With Kepler, the discovery rate went through the roof. From a trickle, it was like someone had turned on a tap – a continual stream of new potential planets to study.

If Kepler was a tap, then TESS will be a fire hose, and there are simply too few telescopes available for us to use to study all of the planets TESS finds at once.

That is where the Australian connection comes to the fore – in the form of a dedicated new facility being built on the Darling Downs, in southeast Queensland.

The Australian connection – MINERVA-Australis

At the University of Southern Queensland, we are constructing MINERVA-Australis – a collection of six telescopes dedicated to nothing but the search for and characterisation of planets around other stars.

When TESS turns on the fire hose, finding thousands of planets in the southern sky, we stand ready. Every clear night, we will be observing those stars that TESS suggests could host planets, doing our utmost to confirm whether those planets really exist.

Read more:
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Once we confirm TESS’s new discoveries, we will be able to use our facility to study the newly found worlds in more detail. By observing the planet’s transits, we can measure its physical size, by seeing how much of the light from its host the planet blocks.

In addition, we will be examining the light we receive from the star, measuring the telltale wobbles caused by the planet as it orbits its host. With those measurements, we will be able to calculate the planet’s mass.

Put the mass and the size together, and we can really begin to work out the planet’s true nature. Is it rocky (like the Earth), or gaseous, like Jupiter and Saturn?

Over the coming years, TESS will push the Exoplanet Era through its next great revolution – finding thousands or tens of thousands of new exoplanets. Here in southeast Queensland, we will be at the forefront of that journey of discovery, helping to reveal the true nature of those alien worlds.

The ConversationI don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what we’ll learn next!

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Commentary: Stephen Hawking’s junk science atheism

Commentary by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

World-famous physics professor Stephen Hawking is making waves and headlines by claiming in his new book, The Grand Design, that God is not necessary to explain the existence of the universe because, in his words, "as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing."

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," he adds. "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

Although the book is not yet available to the public and only a few paragraphs have been quoted in the commercial media, it appears that Hawking is playing the same game he played in his celebrated work, A Brief History of Time, which established his fame in the 1980s and has sold millions of copies worldwide. He takes theories that he admits are unproven, then uses verbal sleight of hand to begin treating them subtly as fact. Even worse, however, is his method of spinning ludicrous philosophical conclusions from such theories, implying that they simply follow from the science.

Hawking makes hay out of the theory of the "vacuum fluctuation" to imply that matter can simply spontaneously appear, created out of "nothing." A vacuum fluctuation is an event in which the forces of nature manifest themselves briefly as "virtual particles," so briefly they cannot be directly observed, and then disappear. Such theoretical entities seem to be well supported by experimental evidence. However, physics has not abandoned the principle of the conservation of mass and energy, and the "nothing" that such particles receive their mass from is in fact something very real, known as "vacuum energy," which permeates all of space.

"Quantum cosmologists," such as Hawking, have made a cottage industry out of speculating that events like vacuum fluctuations could result in the creation of entirely new worlds, although they have no direct experimental proof of such events occurring. This is in keeping with Hawking’s general obsession with highly theoretical constructs that have little hard data to support them. He has, for example, spent many years theorizing on the properties of black holes, entities whose very existence remains unproven. This is why, despite his great fame and unquestioned ability, he has never received the Nobel Prize in physics.

In his latest bid for publicity, Hawking appears to be employing his usual shell-game verbiage to imply the "spontaneous" appearance of the physical world, with Nothing itself as a creator. His theory emphasizes vacuum fluctuations, but it apparently slips his mind that the law of conservation of energy remains an axiom of physics. He defines "nothing" in a very peculiar way — apparently the energy of the vacuum is "nothing." Moreover, Hawking cites two particular "nothings" to justify his something-from-nothing theory, which are the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics (the laws governing microphysical particles). He says that these laws make such events possible. Are gravity and quantum-physical laws "nothing"?

Hawking’s current statements are similar to those he made in his Brief History of Time, where he tried to imply that the universe came out of nothing because research suggests that the positive and negative energy of the universe balance each other out. Gravity, which is an attractive force, is understood as "negative energy," and the expansive movement of the universe is seen as "positive energy."

Of course, if you add together a negative number and positive number whose absolute values are equal, you get zero, but so what? Are we to conclude that because these two variables sum to nothing, that they had their origin in nothing, or perhaps that they don’t even exist because they cancel each other out? If so, how could one place them as terms in the equation in the first place? Hawking never bothers to answer basic questions like that, apparently hoping that his naive and sympathetic audience won’t ask them.


Selective science?

While making selective use of new and untested theories to make his case, Hawking conveniently forgets to mention that the most commonly-accepted interpretation of quantum physics has a tendency to dramatically undermine his position. That interpretation is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), popularized by Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr. The CI postulates that particles don’t really exist until they are observed — they only exist in a potential way, as probabilities. Indeed, if one is to take the ultra-empiricist position that Hawking takes, in which perception and reality are naively equated, this is the most logical conclusion one can draw from modern quantum physics, which uses probabilities to address the trade-off between the precision of our knowledge about the location and momentum of particles.

However, if it is true that particles don’t exist until they are observed, then human beings themselves would not exist, and therefore the whole universe would not exist, unless there were a non-physical observer outside of the universe causing it to exist. This is one reason that some physicists who initially embraced the CI because it dovetailed with their empiricist worldview, have backed away from it. They don’t like the conclusions it tends to lead them to. The non-physical observer outside of the universe, causing it to exist by observing it, sounds too much like God.

Not surprisingly, Hawking has rejected the CI in favor of another, less popular interpretation called the "many worlds" interpretation. According to Hawking’s own review of the book, he applies this interpretation of quantum physics as if it is something that flows out of the science itself, rather than being an unproven (and currently unprovable) supposition that is rejected by large numbers of physicists. He then uses this fanciful theory, which claims that every quantum event spawns new, alternate universes where all possibilities are realized, to reject the strong anthropic principle, which argues that the fine-tuning of the universe suggests the existence of a Creator. Hawking argues that with so many parallel worlds, one is bound to be friendly to life, and so no further explanation is needed.


Natural science vs philosophy and religion

However, the errors in Hawking’s thinking run deeper than the inconsistencies and speculations in his use of modern physics. They imply a fundamental misunderstanding about the differences between the natural sciences and the sciences of philosophy and theology. While the natural sciences can give answers to questions about the precise nature of physical objects and their behavior, they cannot answer questions about the origins of the physical world itself, which is an area addressed by metaphysical philosophy, theology, and religion.

In fact, Hawking openly characterizes his new book as a challenge to philosophy itself, claiming that modern physics is capable of answering all of the questions addressed by the philosophic sciences, thus rendering the latter obsolete.

The absurdity and arrogance of such a proposition is immediately obvious when one considers that physics and other physical sciences don’t have non-physical reality as their subject matter. Physics studies physical things. It doesn’t study purely abstract concepts according to their nature, like the formal sciences of logic, mathematics, and geometry – which are ironically sciences on which physics depends. Physics therefore cannot tell us about the origin of all physical things, which would take it to an extra-physical realm outside of its own sphere of competence.

Hawking’s incredible naiveté and ignorance about the nature of philosophy and its relation to the natural sciences becomes evident when reading his Brief History of Time, which makes embarrassing blunders about Aristotle, even claiming that he denied the validity of the senses (he is famous for affirming the opposite). However, Hawking’s seemingly total ignorance about philosophy also leads him to breathtaking errors in reasoning, which would inspire pity in the reader if it weren’t for the fact that he will never be held accountable for them.

Hawking and his fellow-travelers want to attribute the beginning of the universe to physical laws, while ignoring the issue of their source. A law is a concept, a principle, it is not a physical thing. How do such laws exist without a lawgiver? How do concepts exist without a mind to conceive them? If so, where and how do they exist? Are they floating around in the mythical ether?

More problematical is the very existence of things that do not exist by their nature. There is nothing necessary about the laws of physics as we find them, nor the physical objects of our universe and their properties. We can conceive of an infinite number of possible universes, each with their own set of laws, objects, and internal conditions. So why does this universe exist and not others? If others exist, why do they exist instead of not existing? This is known in philosophy as the contingency problem, and it is one that physics cannot begin to answer. The finite things of our world do not exist by any internal necessity. Therefore they must depend on something else for their existence, and ultimately all things must depend on a being that exists by its very nature, that exists per se. Christians, Jews, Muslims and others call that being God.

Other philosophical problems arise with Hawking’s belief in "spontaneous," uncaused events. Although the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is a fundamental element of quantum physics, requires scientists to use theories of probability and "randomness" when creating mathematical models of the physical world, this does not translate automatically to the conclusion that the world is truly, metaphysically random, and lacking in design.

Randomness is a meaningless concept without a preexisting probability function to define it, along with rules and objects to which it applies. Moreover, randomness itself is only a way of dealing with a lack of complete knowledge about a set of circumstances, much as we deal with a deck of cards that has been shuffled. The idea that the world could be the product of some primordial "randomness" and fundamentally uncaused is absurd on its face, and flies in the nature of science itself, which is the study of causes and principles. If the existence of the universe can be "random" and uncaused, so can any event that takes place within it, which would utterly eliminate science, and the ability to rationally understand the world we live in.

Hawking’s thought is symptomatic of the disciplinary hubris that often overcomes academics, especially physicists and other practitioners of the natural sciences, who forget that their respective fields are, after all, limited. The natural sciences in particular seem to attract large numbers of people who are convinced that only physical reality exists, despite the massive edifice of arguments that have been raised against such a worldview for over 2,300 years by philosophy and theology. They are often laboring under the most primitive kinds of philosophical errors, especially empiricism, a long-refuted doctrine that lives on only in the naive minds of otherwise brilliant scientists, whose myopic vision of the world drives them to great achievements in their own fields, while leading them to utter failure in answering the great questions of life.

Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife whom he left to marry his young nurse, probably put it best when she said of her husband, "Stephen has the feeling that because everything is reduced to a rational, mathematical formula, that must be the truth. He is delving into realms that really do matter to thinking people and, in a way, that can have a very disturbing effect on people — and he’s not competent."

Unfortunately, this brilliant physicist and incompetent philosopher is likely to have quite a disturbing effect on our already confused society, unless other, more responsible physicists raise their voices. Let us hope they do.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

First Group of "Traditionalist" Anglicans in Britain Votes to Enter Catholic Church

By Hilary White

ROME, November 6, 2009 ( – In a move that is a surprise to no one, the UK branch of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), the largest of the groups that broke away from the mainstream Anglican Church over the ordination of woman and the latter’s support for active homosexuality, has been the first to formally accept the offer of Pope Benedict to enter into communion with the Catholic Church en masse.

Although the TAC is not large, being made up of only 20 or so parishes, the vote by the group to accept the invitation is expected to be a strong symbolic blow to the mainstream Anglican Church in its motherland of Britain, where it has been a leader in the acceptance of woman clergy and homosexuality. It is widely acknowledged that the Vatican’s decision to extend its hand to traditionalist Anglicans comes in response to repeated requests, made public last year, by the TAC.

In a surprise announcement on October 20, the Vatican said that a document was being prepared that would create “personal ordinariates” that will allow “traditionalist” Anglicans to come into the Catholic Church in groups while retaining their liturgical and pastoral traditions, including the possibility of a married clergy. William Cardinal Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the move had come in response to many requests from Anglicans around the world, clergy, laity and bishops, who objected to the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Anglicanism, especially in North America and Britain.

The website of the TAC in the UK reported last week, “This Assembly, representing the Traditional Anglican Communion in Great Britain, offers its joyful thanks to Pope Benedict XVI for his forthcoming Apostolic Constitution allowing the corporate reunion of Anglicans with the Holy See, and requests the Primate and College of Bishops of the Traditional Anglican Communion to take the steps necessary to implement this Constitution.”

The leadership of the Traditional Anglican Community in Canada told LSN in an interview late last month that the life and family issues are a major factor in the attraction of the Catholic Church. Bishop Carl Reid of the Traditional Anglican Communion in Canada, told (LSN), “When it comes to issues of morality, especially family and pro-life, our membership is very strongly on the same page as are Roman Catholics.”

The pope’s offer to Anglicans who adhere to traditionally Christian moral doctrine has infuriated the left in both the secular and religious worlds. Benedict XVI has been attacked most recently by former Catholic theologian and notorious opponent of Catholic moral teaching, Hans Kung, as well as innumerable journalists and editors who see the move as the Vatican turning back the ecclesial clock towards a pre-1960s traditional style. Kung accused Benedict, his former university colleague, of ecclesiastical “piracy” and said that the move undermines the decades-long work of “ecumenical dialogue.”

John Allen, the leading American “liberal” Catholic journalist in Rome, gave a more sedate analysis, saying that the invitation to the Anglicans who are in agreement on the nature of truth, doctrine and biblical inerrancy, is indeed part of the pope’s greater plan to combat the growing secularist “dictatorship of relativism” that the pontiff has warned is undermining the very structure of our civilization.

“Benedict XVI is opening the door to … traditionalist Anglicans in part because whatever else they may be, they are among the Christians least prone to end up, in the memorable phrase of Jacques Maritain, ‘kneeling before the world,’ meaning sold out to secularism,” Allen wrote in a column today.

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, an American priest-blogger with connections inside the Vatican, has commented that with this decision (one that was fought by many bishops in his own Church), the pope has earned the title, “Pope of unity.”

The Anglicans who may take advantage of the new “canonical structure,” Zhusldorf wrote, “are Christians who are separated from clear unity with the Church. Pope Benedict stresses the importance of his role as Pope as being one of promoting unity. It is not just that they a Christians who tend to agree with him. They are separated. He is trying to reintegrate them.”

“If we are going to fight the dictatorship of relativism,” Fr. Zuhlsdorf continued, “we need a strong Catholic identity. If we are going to evangelize, we need a strong Catholic identity. If we are going to engage in true ecumenism, we need a strong Catholic identity.  Liturgy is the key component in his ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Church.”

This Report from