TESS Science Conference II draws nearly 700 virtual attendees

Not just an exoplanet-finder anymore, TESS yields diverse astrophysics results at second science conference.

On glowing screens in 41 countries across the world, over 680 people logged on to the second TESS Science Conference from Aug. 2-6. Experts not only in exoplanets, but also in extragalactic astronomy, stellar astrophysics, data analysis, and solar system science presented on discoveries made possible by the NASA TESS Mission via 193 posters uploaded to Zenodo and 50 talks livestreamed and archived on YouTube, with views numbering in the thousands. The conference, hosted by the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, also boasted a vibrant community of online participants across Slack, gather.town, and the conference hashtag, #TESScon2. Attendees shared photos of pets, screenshots of avatars congregated in the virtual conference hall, and reactions to the new NASA TESS poster released during the conference.

This TESS Science Conference took place two years following the first conference, held at MIT in 2019, and three years after TESS began its full-sky survey to find thousands of exoplanets orbiting bright nearby stars. As mission principal investigator, MIT Senior Research Scientist George Ricker stated in his opening remarks that since the four TESS cameras started imaging the sky in summer 2018, TESS has discovered thousands of exoplanet candidates. The mission has surpassed its primary science requirement of confirming 50 new planets smaller than Neptune (or smaller than four times Earth’s radius) and measuring their masses. This success is due in large part to the open-ended and abundant nature of the TESS data.

In two 13.7-day orbits per observing period, TESS takes a continuous series of “postage stamp”-sized images of 20,000 preselected stars every two minutes. It also records wide-field images of a 24-by-96-degree swath of the sky (approximately four times the sky area of the constellation Orion, or close to 6 percent of the entire sky) taken in ever-shrinking frequency intervals: first every 30 minutes for the two years of the TESS prime mission (August 2018-June 2020), then every 10 minutes during the first TESS extended mission (July 2020-April 2022), and now potentially every 200 seconds in the proposed second TESS extended mission, which would start in early fall 2022. Astronomers are resorting to machine learning and heavy-duty computing resources to handle the ever-growing body of TESS data.

Astronomers have found a near-endless variety of uses for TESS’s month-long “stop-motion movies” of millions of stars. The diversity of topics presented at the TESS Science Conference, from within the Solar System to beyond the galaxy attests to how versatile the TESS data are. Beyond exoplanets and stellar astrophysics, the mainstays of the first TESS conference, this year’s meeting included asteroseismology, cosmic geochronology, asteroids, the search for Planet 9, and even SETI. All TESS data are publicly available, with a wide variety of open-access platforms and software packages for data analysis. In addition to the hundreds of professional astronomers who are diving into the TESS data, over 30,000 citizen-scientists have contributed to the discovery and follow-up of new TESS exoplanet candidates and supernovae.

Looking ahead, TESS will continue to work in concert with other missions, providing promising exoplanets for more in-depth study, and contributing visible light observations of supernovae and active galactic nuclei observed also by other telescopes in other wavelengths. TESS has already entered the realm of big-data astronomy, and will likely continue the trend based on plans for future extended missions with full-frame images every 200 seconds, more frequent data downlinks from TESS to Earth, and the possibility of another TESS-like spacecraft in orbit.

At the conference’s conclusion, Ricker remarked, “TESS is everything that we had dreamed that it might be … certainly it was my dream come true, in that sense.” With TESS Science Conference III on the horizon in 2024, Ricker and the collaborative TESS community fully expect to continue making new and unexpected discoveries with this unique space telescope.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. More than a dozen universities, research institutes, and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

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