Evidence of possible exomoon detected for the first time

04 Octobre, 2018, 08:08 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Astronomers find first evidence of possible moon outside our solar system

The entire system is located around 8,000 light-years away, a distance recently revised with the aid of Gaia data.

In the future, gathering more data about this possible moon and any others could help us put our own solar system in better context as well. The moon would have to have a mass and radius that made it similar in size to Neptune, one of the larger planets in our Solar System.

Last year, astronomers Alex Teachey and David Kipping of Columbia University announced they'd spotted the very first exomoon candidate in data from the Kepler telescope.

Plenty of planets exist beyond our solar system, but a moon around one of those worlds has yet to be confirmed. That makes it plausible that the new exomoon is just as off-the-menu as the "hot Jupiters" that surprised early exoplanet hunters, says Stephen Kane, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside, who was not part of the research team.

To find evidence for the existence of the exomoon, the team observed the planet while it was in transit in front of its parent star, causing a dimming of the starlight. Their results were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

"This is not by itself a proof of an exomoon", Kipping said. It's the unknown unknowns, which are ultimately uncharacterizable.

However, the finding is both promising and intriguing.

The exomoon is exponentially larger than our solar system's biggest moon. The gas giant it presumably orbits has several times the mass of Jupiter.

After analysing their data, they found that the planet transit began 77.8 minutes earlier than predicted.

Kipping and Teachey noticed odd anomalies in the transit data of a gas planet, Kepler 1625b, which is several times the size of Jupiter. They saw something unusual with the planet Kepler 1625b.

The Hubble data allowed the two astronomers to more precisely measure the dimming patterns caused by Kepler 1625b. More observations were needed before they could draw any conclusions, but the evidence scored them 40 hours of observation time with the Hubble telescope.

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Mr Kipping said the moon was "trailing the planet like a dog following its owner on a leash".

Due to the unfortunate timing of the Hubble observations, their time with the telescope ended after the planet transited the star, but before the candidate exomoon could fully complete its own transit. This is consistent with a model of the system in which the planet and its moon orbit a common centre of gravity, causing the planet to wobble away from its predicted location [4].

The researchers identified 121 giant planets that have orbits within the habitable zones of their stars. That's because they receive energy not only from their star, but also from radiation reflected from their planet. Look at enough transits, and there could be a regular pattern of additional light blocked.

"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". "But we knew our job was to keep a level head, testing every conceivable way in which the data could be tricking us until we were left with no other explanation".

[1] The moons of Jupiter and Saturn likely formed through the agglomeration into a disc of material orbiting the planets, so it is possible that this exomoon also formed in a circumplanetary disc.

The researchers believe the star system to be 10 billion years old, which means it's had time to evolve. The star was probably cooler in the past, so this heat could be a reason for the size of the moon, inflating the gas giant as the temperature rises.

With that data in hand, they first repeated their former analysis.

How did this moon form in the first place? There are three primary theories about how moons form. One is when planets impact larger bodiesand the blasted-off material becomes a moon.

They had already dubbed the candidate satellite a "Nept-moon", because of its large size. So it remains a mystery - for now.

Teachey and Kipping are submitting proposals for more time on Hubble to observe this planet and its moon during another transit. If confirmed, it would be the first discovery of an "exomoon" in another solar system. That would confirm that the find is an exomoon. Once the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2021, the search for exomoons may be full of possibilities. But because both bodies are gaseous (which means neither are habitable as we understand it, in case you were wondering), and because of the moon's size, that raises questions about how it got there.

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