Published: Sun, October 07, 2018
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

Astronomers claim to find first moon outside our solar system

Astronomers claim to find first moon outside our solar system

However, searches are biased toward the largest moons that might be out there, because bigger things are easier to detect.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have found the first compelling evidence for a Neptune-sized moon orbiting a giant gas planet 8,000 light-years away.

For the first time, astronomers have discovered what could be an exomoon, a moon outside our solar system.

If confirmed, this will be the first time a moon has been found outside of the solar system, according to a new study detailing the finding in the journal Science Advances. "If confirmed by follow-up Hubble observations, the finding could provide vital clues about the development of planetary systems and may cause experts to revisit theories of how moons form around planets".

Jupiter itself has over 70 known moons, and four of these are comparable in size to our own, so multiple moon signals are not unexpected from exoplanet systems. "To be honest, we never really anxious too much about habitability, just because they're both gas giants". That would make the ratio between both bodies similar to Earth and the Moon.

There are other possible explanations, but "a companion moon is the simplest and most natural explanation for the second dip in the light curve and the orbit-timing deviation", Kipping said in a statement.

In observing exomoons, the researchers scrutinized data from 284 Kepler-found planets that were in relatively broad paths, with time spans pronounced than 30 days around their host stars. It's been hard enough to find planets around distant stars, let alone moons.

This artist's impression depicts the exomoon candidate Kepler-1625b-i. The Hubble observations showed that the planet's transit occurred 75 minutes earlier than predicted based on earlier transits observed by the Kepler spacecraft.

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The exomoon candidate is roughly the size of Neptune, and it is orbiting a planet the size of Jupiter, making it a seemingly unusual pair.

So the duo applied to study the planet with Hubble, and were awarded 40 hours of observation time with the iconic telescope. Kepler is best equipped to find planets that orbit close to their stars, and analyses of orbital dynamics - not to mention the evidence in our own solar system - suggest that moons will be more common further out. There's no analog for such a large moon in our own system.

Thousands of planets have been detected around faraway stars in recent years. "It was definitely a shocking moment to see that light curve - my heart started beating a little faster and I just kept looking at that signature", David Kipping described his feelings.

"Kepler recorded just three transits of the planet in front of her star, and that's largely because the planet takes nearly a year to complete an orbit". After the transit ended, Hubble detected a second and much smaller decrease in the star's brightness approximately 3.5 hours later, consistent with the effect of a moon trailing the planet.

"We hope to re-observe the star again in the future to verify or reject the exomoon hypothesis", Kipping said. These are generated because, as the moon orbits its planet, it exerts a gravitational tug on it. "We think that they're at the right temperature to have liquid water on the surface, but of course there is no real surface because they are gas giant planets". Most scientists think an impact scenario explains Earth's moon. The James Cameron movie Avatartook place on Pandora, the moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system.

In this image from television space shuttle Columbia's robotic arm released the Hubble telescope back into orbit Saturday, March 9, 2002. Kipping and Teachey weren't even sure how such a moon might have formed.

"With exomoons we are stretching the limits of our instrument detection thresholds and precision", astronomer Laura Mayorga, who wasn't involved in the new study, said via email. Another is capture, when objects are captured and pulled into orbit around a large planet - like Neptune's moon Triton, which is believed to be a captured Kuiper Belt object. "We can expect to see really tiny moons", Kipping said.

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