NASA’s new planet-hunting spacecraft has successfully completed a flyby around the moon – snapping a photograph revealing more than 200,000 stars along the way.
The picture is the first taken since the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) lifted off from Cape Canaveral in April on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
TESS completed its lunar flyby on 17 May and the science team completed a two-second test exposure using one of the spacecraft’s four cameras.
It is centred on the southern hemisphere constellation Centaurus and reveals more than 200,000 stars.
The picture is just the beginning for NASA, as TESS is expected to cover 400 times as much sky during its mission to search for planets outside of our solar system – bodies known as exoplanets – some of which could potentially harbour life.
The spacecraft will scan the sky with its four cameras as part of an initial two-year search.
NASA says that a science-quality image, also known as a “first light” image, is expected to be released in June.
TESS has a highly unusual orbit around Earth which is designed to maximise the amount of sky it can image.
It will observe nearly the entire sky to monitor for sudden dips in the brightness of nearby stars caused by planets passing in front of them.
NASA expects TESS will find thousands of exoplanets, and its James Webb Space Telescope – scheduled to launch in 2020 – will provide follow-up observations.
TESS is a NASA astrophysics explorer mission led and operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.
More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are taking part in the mission.