DTM Visits Orbital ATK Headquarters to See NASA’s TESS Spacecraft

Tess Fieldtrip
Friday, July 07, 2017 

On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, DTM astronomers and cosmochemists visited Orbital ATK’s headquarters in Dulles, Virginia, to tour their facilities and see NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which the company is building in Northern Virginia.  

DTM staff scientists Larry Nittler and Alycia Weinberger, postdocs Jessica Arnold, Tri AstraatmadjaSerge Dieterich, Erika Nesvold, and My Riebe, Carnegie science writer Natasha Metzler, research trainee Maggie Thompson, and research intern Ari Roos, began our visit with a presentation by Robert Lockwood, the TESS Spacecraft Program Manager, accompanied by David Thompson, the President and CEO of Orbital ATK and a Carnegie board member, who gave us an overview of the mission’s goals, design and construction.  

Our DTM group inspected a full-scale model of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Photo by Natasha Metzler, Carnegie Science.

TESS is an Explorer-class planet finder and the first-ever all-sky transit survey satellite that will monitor the brightnesses of the closest 200,000+ stars in the solar neighborhood over the course of two years, looking for dips in their starlight which is indicative of a planet passing in front of its star.  It is expected to detect over 3,000 transiting exoplanet candidates including about 500 Earth-sized and ‘Super Earth’ planets (i.e., with radii less than twice that of Earth).

The main mission goal of TESS is to detect small planets with bright host stars in the solar neighborhood. These are ideal targets to perform detailed follow-up analysis to properly characterize these planets and their atmospheres with future exoplanet missions including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.  It’s scheduled to launch in March 2018 from the Kennedy Space Center.

We are all “suited up” for a tour of the satellite factory. Photo by Natasha Metzler, Carnegie Science.

After the presentation, we visited the facilities at Orbital ATK with our wonderful tour guide Ray Crough, a Senior Program Director at Orbital ATK. We began with a visit to the mission control room for Cygnus, a cargo delivery spacecraft that performs resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).  We inspected a scale model of Cygnus and learned about how it docks with the ISS and what sorts of supplies it sends up to the astronauts.  

In preparation for the next part of our tour, we put on lab coats, hair and shoe coverings, and of course, we couldn’t resist the opportunity for a photo. We put these clean suits on to visit Orbital ATK’s satellite factory and robotics lab where we learned about their various spacecraft, which, if taken all together, account for over 1,400 years of in-space operation!  

Our visit ended with getting to see the TESS spacecraft, which is about to start a major testing phase in preparation for its launch next year.  We had a great day visiting Orbital ATK and are already counting down the days until the TESS launch!

For more information about TESS, visit https://tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/ and for more information about Orbital  ATK, visit http://www.orbitalatk.com/

Written by Maggie Thompson // July 7, 2017

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