First moon outside our solar system discovered, astronomers think

07 October, 2018, 00:26 | Author: Kelly Sanders
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Since planets and satellites orbiting stars do not emit light on their own, it is impossible to directly observe those outside the solar system. In panel 1, the light curve begins to dip as the planet begins transiting in front of the star. The finding may lead to theories on the formation of moons being revisited, David Kipping, of Columbia University in NY, said.

Kipping has spent a decade working on the "exomoon hunt". As with most "first" discoveries, this first exomoon detection is not yet absolutely conclusive, as the signals are at the limit of what is now measurable, but I am hopeful that its existence will be confirmed with subsequent observations. And today, in the journal Science Advances, they say this gas giant appears to have a Neptune-sized moon. "Science can't operate by teams such as ourselves refusing to publish our results and hiding behind closed doors", Kipping says in an online outreach video posted concurrently with the paper. "It's the unknown of unknowns which are ultimately uncharacterizeable".

Kipping and Teachey noticed odd anomalies in the transit data of a gas planet, Kepler 1625b, which is several times the size of Jupiter. The Earth-moon system formed as a result of a giant impact in the early solar system.

Thousands of exoplanets have previously been found by astronomers, with some suggesting they could possibly support life, but this is the first time scientists have ever found what they believe is a moon orbiting one of them, the newly-released study shows. They are usually seen in compact planetary systems, such as those around red dwarf stars, where the planets are very close together and are able to gravitationally tug upon one another to affect the timing. Astronomers think numerous gas giants' moons are captured asteroids. The journal's deputy editor, Kip Hodges, praised the researchers for their cautious tone, given the hard and complicated process of identifying an exomoon.

After looking through recent data from NASA's Kepler space telescope, Alex Teachey, a graduate researcher in the department of astronomy at Columbia University, and David M. Kipping, an assistant professor in the same department, spotted evidence that an exomoon might orbit the Jupiter-sized exoplanet Kepler-1625b. Like Kepler, Hubble tracked the faint dimming of light from Kepler-1625, a sunlike star about 8,000 light-years from Earth, as the two worlds passed over the star's disk.

Hubble's data, along with fine-tuned data from Kepler, strengthened the case for claiming Kepler-1625b had an exomoon.


It's a moon outside our solar system, which we can't see directly, but when it passes in front of a star the light from that star dims - and that how it's detected.

So Kipping and Teachey asked for 40 hours of observing time with the Hubble Space Telescope, which is four times as precise as Kepler. During other orbits, the moon will trail behind its planet, slowing it down and making the transit start later than expected. The observation period, however, ended before the moon could complete its transit. This is consistent with the planet and moon orbiting a common center of gravity (barycenter) that would cause the planet to wobble from its predicted location. It orbits its parent star at a distance similar to the distance between the Sun and Earth, which puts it - and its candidate moon - at the inner edge of the habitable zone of the star system [3].

Kipping and Teachey relied on the "transit" method already used by researchers to discover almost 4,000 planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets. "But we knew our job was to keep a level head and essentially assume it was bogus, testing every conceivable way in which the data could be tricking us".

"If we want to do moon hunting in the future, we will have to look at planets further [than one astronomical unit, or the distance between the sun and Earth]", Teachey said.

If indeed a moon, it would be about 2 million miles (3 million kilometers) from its planet and appear twice as big in its sky, as the moon does in ours. The James Cameron movie Avatartook place on Pandora, the moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. But until they have more data, this is only speculation, Kipping said.

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