Spaceflight Insider

TESS scientist explains what the Goldilocks orbit is

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Spacecraft (TESS) is being readied for a planned April 16, 2018 launch date. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Spacecraft (TESS) is being readied for a planned April 16, 2018 launch date. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA is planning on launching the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission about mid-April aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. TESS is planned to operate from a “sweet spot” so to speak, but Goldilocks zones and Goldilocks orbits aren’t the same. 

Artist's depiction of NASA's TESS spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s TESS spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

According to one of the mission’s project managers, Robert Lockwood with Orbital ATK (which built the spacecraft), the highly elliptical 13.7-day orbit around the Earth has been selected so as to operate from a position that maximizes a view of deep space, while at the same time minimizing the potential adverse effects of both space debris and radiation.

In a orbit that has been termed by its project managers as the “Goldilocks” orbit (“Not too high, not too low, but just right”), the spacecraft will seek out distant worlds around alien suns.

TESS has been deemed the next step in NASA’s deep space exploration designed to answer the question, “Is there any other life out there?” The 2009-2013 Kepler mission revealed thousands of exoplanets orbiting stars in its 115 square degree field-of view, but that covered only about 0.25 percent of the sky.

The TESS Mission, on the other hand, is designed to survey over 90 percent of the sky (an area of sky 400 times larger than covered by Kepler) to search for planets around nearby stars in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.  Some of these stars are likely to be 30-100 times brighter than those surveyed by the Kepler satellite.

Planets detected around these stars will therefore be far easier to characterize with follow-up observations (by both ground-based observatories as well as by future space-based platforms), resulting in refined measurements of planet masses, sizes, densities, and atmospheric properties. 

“I’m excited about the possibility during my lifetime of identifying other planets out there capable of sustaining life,” NASA’s Jeff Volosin told SpaceFlight Insider.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s George Riker, TESS’s 30-second launch window is scheduled to open on April 16, 2018, and is determined by the precise relative positions of the Earth and the Moon.

If everything goes as it is currently planned, SpaceX should launch TESS to its “Goldilocks” orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 atop a ‘Full Thrust’ Falcon 9 rocket.




Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.

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