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Thread: First 'Exomoon' May Have Been Found

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    Default First 'Exomoon' May Have Been Found

    First 'exomoon' may have been found

    By Paul Rincon
    Science editor, BBC News website

    4th October, 2018



    Artwork: There's nothing like this planet-moon pair in our Solar System

    Astronomers have announced the possible discovery of the first known moon outside our Solar System.

    This "exomoon" is not like any in our cosmic neighbourhood: it's the size of Neptune and orbits a planet the size of Jupiter - but with 10 times the mass.

    The object was spotted in data from Nasa's Kepler spacecraft, and later observed using the Hubble telescope.

    Astronomers David Kipping and Alex Teachey have published their results in Science Advances journal.

    But they say that further observations are needed to understand the distant planetary system.

    "We've tried our best to rule out other possibilities such as spacecraft anomalies, other planets in the system or stellar activity, but we're unable to find any other single hypothesis which can explain all of the data we have," said Dr Kipping, from Columbia University in New York.

    To date, astronomers have discovered more than 3,500 exoplanets - worlds orbiting stars other than the Sun.

    A hunt for exomoons - bodies that orbit these distant planets - has proceeded in parallel. But so far, these natural satellites have lingered at the limits of detection with current techniques.

    The researchers monitored a planet known as Kepler 1625b as it passed in front of its parent star.

    This 19-hour event, known as a transit, blocked out some of the light coming from the star, which lies at a distance of 8,000 light-years from Earth.


    Artist’s impression of the exoplanet Kepler-1625b transiting the star with the candidate exomoon in tow

    Kipping and Teachey looked for two signals suggestive of an exomoon in the data from several transits.

    The first of these signals was a dip in the parent star's brightness as the exomoon passed in front. The second was a delay in the planet passing in front of its star.

    This is exactly what the researchers saw: "The location, shape and depth of this event appear consistent with a Neptune-sized moon transiting in front of the star," said Dr Kipping.

    Both objects are gas giants and the apparent moon, known as Kepler 1625b-i, orbits some three million kilometres from the planet.

    About 3.5 hours after the planet's transit ended, the Hubble telescope recorded a second smaller dimming of the star's brightness, which indicated a moon "trailing the planet like a dog following its owner on a leash," according to Dr Kipping.

    In addition, the transit occurred about one-and-a-quarter hours earlier than predicted.

    "That's indicative of something gravitationally tugging on the planet," explained Dr Kipping.

    The researchers also had to remove artefacts from the Hubble data and used computer models to work out how different scenarios fit with the observed data.


    The researchers will conduct follow-up observations with Hubble in October

    "The moon model emerges as the best explanation for the data, and it has the added benefit of being a single explanation for both the timing effects and the dimming of the star that we see in the data," said Alex Teachey.

    "Still we are urging caution here. The first exomoon is obviously an extraordinary claim and it requires extraordinary evidence."

    But, he added: "We are excited about this result, certainly it is a tantalising result."

    The astronomers were allocated 40 hours of observation time on the Hubble telescope. These observations ended before a full transit of the moon could be measured.

    However, the evidence provides the most compelling evidence yet for the first known planetary satellite around an exoplanet.

    David Kipping has spent about a decade of his career searching for these distant and elusive planetary companions.

    Several promising exomoon candidates have cropped up in the past, only to be debunked as further data became available.

    Dr Kipping, along with colleagues Alex Teachey and Allan Schmitt, announced that they were studying this candidate moon in July 2017.

    At the time, he told me it was "the best candidate we've had".

    They had already dubbed the candidate satellite a "Nept-moon", because of its large size.



    The researchers could find no predictions of a Neptune-sized moon in the literature, but Dr Kipping notes that nothing in physics prevents one.

    A current theory of planetary formation suggests that objects like this are unlikely to have formed in place with their Jupiter-mass planets, but would instead be objects captured by the gravity of the planet later on in the evolution of a planetary system.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45707309
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    Exomoons: On the hunt for distant worlds

    By Mary Halton
    Science reporter, BBC News

    3rd July 2018


    Artist's impression: An exomoon orbits a distant planet


    The search for exoplanets, which orbit distant stars, has opened up a whole galaxy of worlds beyond our own. Over 3,700 have been discovered to date, but they may have companions.

    Since the first confirmed discovery of planets beyond our own Solar System over 20 years ago, we have known that our stellar neighbourhood is not unique in the Universe.

    But now the frontier of exploration is shifting again; because where there are planets, there should be moons.

    And those moons could be surprisingly Earth-like.

    Why moons?

    Thus far, scientists interested in potential habitable worlds beyond our Solar System have focused on planets that could resemble Earth; currently our only blueprint for life.

    But what if these worlds don't orbit their star, but another planet instead?

    A team of researchers at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia set out to explore this possibility; surveying the habitable zone of planetary systems observed by Nasa's Kepler telescope.

    Also known as the Goldilocks zone, this is the region around a star where liquid water can exist at a planet's surface.



    The team found that the predicted number of moons orbiting giant planets in these regions could well exceed that of rocky, Earth-like planets. This could make them the most abundant potential habitats for life.

    "Considering the expected number of these moons in the habitable zone of their star, it is quite possible that the first signs of life found outside the Solar System, if it exists, could actually be found on a moon rather than an Earth-like planet," lead author Michelle Hill told BBC News.

    So exomoons could well be some of the most important places in the Universe.

    But they are incredibly difficult to find. In fact, no one has confirmed a discovery yet.

    "The habitable zone tends to be just at the very limit of our current detection methods," Dr Stephen Kane of UC Riverside, another author on the study, explains. Spotting planets there is tricky enough, but moons are another matter entirely.


    Being in the habitable zone can drastically alter a planet's surface

    Dr David Kipping, who leads a team at Columbia University, New York, has been interested in the idea of exomoons since he was a student.

    "There aren't very many of us looking for these things, but I'm sure as soon as we start finding them there'll be more people who join in the hunt," he told the BBC.

    "Trying to understand... how common [they are] will give us some sense of how unique the Solar System is."

    How do moons form?

    Most moons are thought to form from the leftover ingredients of their parent planet.

    In our Solar System, Jupiter's large family of moons likely formed from the accumulation of this material when the planet was young.

    Moons can also start out as dwarf planets or asteroids orbiting their star, only later to be captured by planets with a much stronger gravitational pull.

    This is thought to be the case for Triton, which orbits backwards around its host planet Neptune, and may previously have lived in the Kuiper Belt - a distant zone of the Solar System beyond Neptune's orbit.



    Our own Moon formed via a giant impact. When another large body collided with the early Earth, the resulting debris collected to create the Moon.

    The Earth and Moon actually make for an unusual couple within our own Solar System.

    "It's a giant moon basically, compared to the Earth. And it's not really obvious whether that's a rule of thumb or it's extremely unusual within the universe," explains Dr Kipping.

    What makes a moon a good home?

    Well, size matters.

    "You could certainly have a giant planet that had moons which were similar in size and mass to, say, Mars, and so that would create far more habitable conditions," says Dr Kane.

    An atmosphere can also radically increase a planet's ability to host life, and bodies need to reach a certain size in order to retain one.

    "One of the major impacts on the ability of planet to retain its atmosphere is how far away it is from the [star], because the [star] emits what we call a solar wind, which tends to erode an atmosphere," he added.

    A planet's magnetic field can protect its moon from the harsh solar wind.


    Jupiter pulls and stretches tiny Io, causing the heat which fuels its volcanoes

    In addition to water, life also needs energy, which can be provided by the gravitational pull of a planet squeezing at a moon - as it does with highly volcanic Io.

    So when are we likely to find the first exomoon?

    Dr Kipping's team have identified exoplanet Kepler 1625b as a potential candidate for hosting an exomoon, but they have not yet been able to confirm a discovery.

    A Jupiter-sized planet, it sits about as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun.


    Artist's impression: Exoplanet Kepler 1625b may host a moon

    But finding life isn't easy

    However, finding even hints of life on an exomoon will be extremely difficult.

    "In the Solar System we have no idea whether [icy moons] have life underneath the surface or not. And it's very, very difficult even when we live next door to those objects to make any assessment of what's going on beneath the surface of the ice... Imagine doing that from light-years away," says Dr Kipping.

    Despite the challenges, Prof Giovanna Tinetti, an exoplanet researcher at University College London, believes that it's best to keep an open mind.

    "I think we need to be open when it comes to habitability, [and] certainly not stay attached to the... view that you need to have a planet that's big like the Earth, the same distance from the Sun with a star that's exactly like the Sun.

    "I would hope life is a little bit more original than that."

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-44605761

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    Signal may be from the first exomoon: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40741545
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