NASA’s TESS Tunes Into an Unprecedented All-Sky “Symphony” of Pulsating Red Giant Stars

Red Giant Stars Near and Far

Red giant stars near and far sweep across the sky in this illustration. Measurements from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite have identified more than 158,000 pulsating red giants across nearly the entire sky. Such discoveries hold great potential for exploring the detailed structure of our home galaxy. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle)

Using observations from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), astronomers have identified an unprecedented collection of pulsating red giant stars all across the sky. These stars, whose rhythms arise from internal sound waves, provide the opening chords of a symphonic exploration of our galactic neighborhood.

TESS primarily hunts for worlds beyond our solar system, also known as exoplanets. But its sensitive measurements of stellar brightness make TESS ideal for studying stellar oscillations, an area of research called asteroseismology.

“Our initial result, using stellar measurements across TESS’s first two years, shows that we can determine the masses and sizes of these oscillating giants with precision that will only improve as TESS goes on,” said Marc Hon, a NASA Hubble Fellow at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. “What’s really unparalleled here is that TESS’s broad coverage allows us to make these measurements uniformly across almost the entire sky.”


This visualization shows the new sample of oscillating red giant stars (colored dots) discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. The colors map to each 24-by-96-degree swath of the sky observed during the mission’s first two years. The view then changes to show the positions of these stars within our galaxy, based on distances determined by ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Gaia mission. The scale shows distances in kiloparsecs, each equal to 3,260 light-years, and extends nearly 20,000 light-years from the Sun. Credit: Kristin Riebe, Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam

Hon presented the research during the second TESS Science Conference, an event supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge – held virtually from Aug. 2 to 6 – where scientists discuss all aspects of the mission. The Astrophysical Journal has accepted a paper describing the findings, led by Hon.

Sound waves traveling through any object – a guitar string, an organ pipe, or the interiors of Earth and the Sun – can reflect and interact, reinforcing some waves and canceling out others. This can result in orderly motion called standing waves, which create the tones in musical instruments.

Just below the surfaces of stars like the Sun, hot gas rises, cools, and then sinks, where it heats up again, much like a pan of boiling water on a hot stove. This motion produces waves of changing pressure – sound waves – that interact, ultimately driving stable oscillations with periods of a few minutes that produce subtle brightness changes. For the Sun, these variations amount to a few parts per million. Giant stars with masses similar to the Sun’s pulsate much more slowly, and the corresponding brightness changes can be hundreds of times greater.


Listen to the rhythms of three red giants in the constellation Draco, as determined by brightness measurements from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. To produce audible tones, astronomers multiplied the oscillation frequencies of the stars by 3 million times. It’s clear that larger stars produce longer, deeper pulsations than smaller ones. Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS and Ethan Kruse (USRA), M. Hon et al., 2021

Oscillations in the Sun were first observed in the 1960s. Solar-like oscillations were detected in thousands of stars by the French-led Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) space telescope, which operated from 2006 to 2013. NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions, which surveyed the sky from 2009 to 2018, found tens of thousands of oscillating giants. Now TESS extends this number by another 10 times.

“With a sample this large, giants that might occur only 1% of the time become pretty common,” said co-author Jamie Tayar, a Hubble Fellow at the University of Hawaii. “Now we can start thinking about finding even rarer examples.”

The physical differences between a cello and a violin produce their distinctive voices. Similarly, the stellar oscillations astronomers observe depend on each star’s interior structure, mass, and size. This means asteroseismology can help determine fundamental properties for large numbers of stars with accuracies not achievable in any other way.

When stars similar in mass to the Sun evolve into red giants, the penultimate phase of their stellar lives, their outer layers expand by 10 or more times. These vast gaseous envelopes pulsate with longer periods and larger amplitudes, which means their oscillations can be observed in fainter and more numerous stars.


The bright red giant Edasich in the constellation Draco is about 12 times larger and 1.8 times the mass of our Sun. Edasich oscillates three times a day, brightening and fading slightly as it does. For comparison, the Sun pulsates about every five minutes. Left: The star’s changing brightness as measured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Right: An illustration of the star and its varying brightness. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle)

TESS monitors large swaths of the sky for about a month at a time using its four cameras. During its two-year primary mission, TESS covered about 75% of the sky, each camera capturing a full image measuring 24-by-24 degrees every 30 minutes. In mid-2020, the cameras began collecting these images at an even faster pace, every 10 minutes.

The images were used to develop light curves – graphs of changing brightness – for nearly 24 million stars over 27 days, the length of time TESS stares at each swath of the sky. To sift through this immense accumulation of measurements, Hon and his colleagues taught a computer to recognize pulsating giants. The team used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence that trains computers to make decisions based on general patterns without explicitly programming them.

To train the system, the team used Kepler light curves for more than 150,000 stars, of which some 20,000 were oscillating red giants. When the neural network finished processing all of the TESS data, it had identified a chorus of 158,505 pulsating giants.

TESS Sky Map Mass Map

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) imaged about 75% of the sky during its two-year-long primary mission. This plot dissolves between the TESS sky map and a “mass map” constructed by combining TESS measurements of 158,000 oscillating red giant stars with their distances, established by ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Gaia mission. The prominent band in both images is the Milky Way, which marks the central plane of our galaxy. In the mass map, green, yellow, orange, and red show where giant stars average more than 1.4 times the Sun’s mass. Such stars evolve faster than the Sun, becoming giants at younger ages. The close correspondence of higher-mass giants with the plane of the Milky Way, which contains our galaxy’s spiral arms, demonstrates that it contains many young stars. Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS and Ethan Kruse (USRA), M. Hon et al., 2021

Next, the team found distances for each giant using data from ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Gaia mission, and plotted the masses of these stars across the sky. Stars more massive than the Sun evolve faster, becoming giants at younger ages. A fundamental prediction in galactic astronomy is that younger, higher-mass stars should lie closer to the plane of the galaxy, which is marked by the high density of stars that create the glowing band of the Milky Way in the night sky.

“Our map demonstrates for the first time empirically that this is indeed the case across nearly the whole sky,” said co-author Daniel Huber, an assistant professor for astronomy at the University of Hawaii. “With the help of Gaia, TESS has now given us tickets to a red giant concert in the sky.”

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. More than a dozen universities, research institutes, and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

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