April 18, 2018
Cape Canaveral, FloridaMeeting host: By:
Adina FeinsteinSPS Chapter:
There have only been a few years in my life when a human wasn’t found in space. Sending and bringing home astronauts no longer awes the public as it once did and often major news outlets don’t even cover it. But exoplanets, planets orbiting stars other than our sun, and prospects of finding life outside of our own system — that’s news worthy. Recently, NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and SpaceX joined forces to launch the next planet hunting mission TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
I’m no stranger to the question, “Do you think there is other life in the universe?” and I’m sure you’ve asked yourself this question as well. Right now, we have no evidence to suggest so, but the exoplanet community is making progress on answering this question at an unprecedented speed. Not twenty years ago, we did not know exoplanets existed and now over three thousand have been confirmed by the Kepler Space Telescope alone. The Kepler Space Telescope only observed a small portion (~10%) of the sky while TESS will look look at nearly all of it. Both Kepler and TESS search for planets by observing what is known as a transit, which is a slight dip in the brightness of the star as a planet passes through our line of sight.
As an exoplanet enthusiast, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see TESS launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket this past April, 2018. I applied, and was selected, to the NASA Social program. The NASA Social program is an opportunity for anybody with social media accounts to learn and share information about NASA missions, people, and programs. Over four hundred people applied to attend this event and forty were chosen. I found out about this program over Twitter and didn’t realize how popular and selective it was. After learning the statistics, I felt truly honored to have been chosen.
For the TESS launch, NASA Social arranged two days of activities for us. On the first day, we attended the NASA Social briefing, where we heard from scientists such as Dr. Elisa Quintana, and Dr. Jessie Christiansen, and the event was live-streamed on NASA TV. Being a part of the NASA Social program was like being a part of the press. As someone trained in astrophysics, I found it very difficult to ask not too technical questions when talking to our guest speakers. After the briefing, we received tickets to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitors Complex. I walked around the center with my friend, whom I met at NASA over a summer internship, and her family. I had been to the KSC before, but it was a lot of fun walking around with a five year old, my friend’s daughter, and watching her face light up as we saw the real Atlantis Space Shuttle and a to-scale replica of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The second day of the program, April 16th, we were taken behind the scenes of the KSC and toured SwampWorks, a robotics engineering lab that accelerates innovation for designs of tools that could be used in space, on the moon, and potentially even on Mars. There were giant pits of synthetic moon sand and little rovers scattered around lab, and unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos. The lab is called SwampWorks because, like a lot of Florida, it is located right next to a swamp! We even heard stories that employees often have to check under their cars for gators before leaving for the day. We spotted this big guy as we were leaving the building; who knew the hardest part of these engineers job was leaving safely at the end of the day!
After touring SwampWorks we finally got to see the rocket! This was by far my favorite part of the entire experience. As we were driving up to Launch Pad 40, the bus was going crazy; everybody was excited to be some of the very few who would see the rocket up close. What was weird was that as we approached I felt myself become a lot quieter, I didn’t want to talk or listen to other people. Exoplanets have always been a field I loved. I completed two research projects with them when I was in high school and even though I took a little break to study galaxy evolution during my undergraduate career, exoplanets are a field I want to get back to. And as we approached the rocket, what I was really looking at was my future.
It was truly awe-inspiring to step off the bus and not one hundred meters away was this magnificent, skinny rocket with the TESS mission stored in payload fairing. On the fairing itself were giant images of the NASA and TESS logos. Although the NASA Social program director warned us to watch our step in the grass, as there could be fire ants, I felt completely overwhelmed and sat down and just stared at the rocket. As a child, I wasn’t so much interested in engineering. Building rockets, robots, and satellites never excited me as much as raw science. On that day, I sat and appreciated the amount of time, work, and energy that was needed to get us to this point and I felt so overwhelmingly lucky to have been able to be there.
After visiting Launch Pad 40, we drove to Launch Pad 39B. This historic launchpad is where the Apollo missions, the first manned shuttles, were launched. I had been behind the scenes at the KSC previously on a guided tour through the Visitors Complex, but this time, we drove up to the launchpad and then drove onto it; ur bus driver drove us onto the launchpad! It was incredible to see the the flame trenches and the construction that is going on to get ready for the next shuttles NASA is building, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is being designed for deep space exploration and potentially sending humans to Mars. Although I’m sure fixing up an already existing launchpad is cheaper than building a new one, I found it poetic that they chose to use 39B, the one that sent our men to the moon, to send our men and women farther than we ever thought possible.
We ate lunch at the employee cafeteria (Subways) and toured the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which is a 526 foot tall building and one of the largest buildings by volume, covering 129,428,000 cubic feet, in the world. Here, the center is getting ready to start assembling the new SLS. The building also contained what I refer to as testing toys. The toys were to-scale models of parts of the SLS, or the Apollo mission, that engineers used to make sure they would be able to properly assemble the rocket. They had a mock-up of the Apollo capsule sitting on the floor of the building as an example. The image I’ve provided of the VAB is the chamber where the SLS will be assembled with a diagram in front of how it will look, once fully completed.
Before the end of our tour, we learned that the TESS launch had been delayed for the next 48 hours. The weather was great, but the guidance and navigation systems of the Falcon 9 needed further analysis to be ready for launch. As disappointing as this news was, I knew there was a risk the rocket wouldn’t launch the day I was there. But, I have no regrets about attending; I was able to see so many cool behind the scenes buildings at KSC and the Falcon 9 rocket itself that I would not otherwise have been able to see. I would highly recommend this program for anybody who has an interest in astronomy or engineering at NASA.
Unfortunately, due to classes, I was unable to stay for the delayed launch and it hurt more than I expected it to when I arrived at the airport Tuesday morning. Instead, I watched the launch as an anxiety-ridden mess in the comfort of a small blanket fort; I could only imagine what viewers still at KSC must have been feeling. Since learning about TESS at the beginning of my NASA internship in May, 2017, I have attended two science conferences at MIT and followed its progress closely. There has truly never been a better time to study exoplanet science. TESS is going to observe millions upon millions of stars and if all of these stars have at least one planet, then the amount of data that’s coming down and the amount of follow-up observations that need to be completed to confirm these are real planets, is through the roof. In a few months, data will start flowing down from TESS and the community will be overwhelmed with new science and discoveries. I can’t wait to hopefully use TESS data in my future as a graduate student next year.