Wednesday, 17 October, 2018

Evidence of possible exomoon detected for the first time

Hubble finds compelling evidence for a moon outside the Solar System - Neptune-sized moon orbits Jupiter-sized planet Scientists think they’ve found the first moon outside our solar system
Frank Williams | 07 October, 2018, 00:29

At first, the researchers saw the dip in light caused by the planet passing across the face of the star, but not long afterward, they saw a second, smaller dip, likely caused by the moon transiting across the star. The researchers' investigations showed that the HST-recorded transit of Kepler-1625b occurred almost 80 minutes earlier than expected, a pattern suggesting the presence of transit timing variations, or TTVs, which are among the first proposed methods to confirm the presence of exomoons.

One of the astronomers, David Kipping, said: "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". Alex Teachey and David Kipping, both of Columbia University, found that three dips, attributed to the planet Kepler-1625b, might actually be caused by a planet and a moon.

Finding moons outside of our solar system could also lead to new discoveries in the hunt for habitable places out in the galaxy.

This value is close to the mass-ratio between the Earth and its moon. And, with a year between orbits, the researchers had enough time to arrange for the Hubble Space Telescope to image the planet's next pass in front of its star.

"A companion moon is the simplest and most natural explanation for the second dip in the light curve and the orbit-timing deviation", Kipping explained.

Although the object itself can not be seen, there are hints it exists, according to the researchers: The planet moves around its star in a way that indicates something else is pulling on it gravitationally, probably a moon.

This still doesn't prove the existence of an exomoon around Kepler-1625b. In some configurations, that tug will be in the direction of the planet's orbit around its star, causing the transit to occur sooner than expected. The data suggested that a Jupiter-sized planet, Kepler-1625b, may be orbited by an exomoon. The researchers were awarded with 40 hours of observation time using Hubble, and the data they gathered were four times more precise than what Kepler had captured.

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Did the Hubble Space Telescope come up with evidence of the first moon orbiting a planet outside of our solar system? The Earth-moon system formed as a result of a giant impact in the early solar system.

This decrease in dimness is consistent with "a moon trailing the planet like a dog following its owner on a leash", Kipping said. The planet's name is Kepler-1625b. "It was a shocking moment to see that light curve, my heart started beating a little faster and I just kept looking at that signature".

The possible moon was documented by Kepler, the powerhouse planet-hunting space telescope, when it cast a shadow by crossing in front of a star. However, Kepler-1625 is a Sun-like star and there is no evidence for another nearby planet.

Although the researchers can not say with certainty that an exomoon caused these effects, Kipping argues that the moon hypothesis offers the best single explanation for both anomalies. "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". The moons of Jupiter and Saturn on the other hand coalesced from the debris left behind after the planets formed.

KIPPING: So when we look for an Earth twin, I think one of the most obvious things you might ask is, does it have a moon twin, because that seems to have a large influence.

Both the study team and critics alike say that further confirmation is still needed, however, adding an element of caution to what would be a landmark discovery. While not a candidate for life themselves, Jupiter-like planets in the habitable zone may harbor rocky moons, called exomoons, that could sustain life.

Until now, no exomoons have been confirmed. "We can expect to see really tiny moons", Kipping said. NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could really "clean-up" in the satellite search, Kipping said.

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