Have scientists found a moon around a planet outside the solar system?

04 Octobre, 2018, 03:52 | Auteur: Therese Cote

Assuming they have discovered an exomoon, it will be the first of its kind ever found, marking a new milestone in the exploration of the universe around us.

"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 NY.

A couple of years ago, Kipping and Teachey began scrutinizing data collected by NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

The researchers hoped to see two short dimming moments that might signal the presence of an exomoon around one of these transiting planets.

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. But Kepler didn't find any other planets around this star. Our moon does the same to Earth.

The discovery was first announced reluctantly by the scientists in July 2017 after details were leaked on Twitter. They were amazed instead by how different this moon was from the roughly 180 known in our solar system.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, the researchers noted the moon would have to be unusually large to explain the observed light curve, possibly comparable to a body the size of Neptune. Unfortunately for those excited by the prospect of finding aliens, both are gaseous and are not expected to be harboring any life. Other moons, such as Neptune's largest moon Triton, may have been captured from the Kuiper belt.

One of the authors behind the study - David Kipping from Columbia University in the U.S. - has been speculating about the possible existence of exomoons, and describing how they might be detected, for the last ten years. "Our analysis of the new light curve reveals two substantial anomalies", Kipping explained during a press briefing. They also helped to use Hubble to see any gravitational effects that a moon would have on the exoplanet, like changing its transit start time. This catalog included 284 planets found by Kepler with wide orbits around their host stars. The second was a delay in the planet passing in front of its star.

This still doesn't prove the existence of an exomoon around Kepler-1625b.

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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. This also happens with Earth, the moon and the sun.

In addition to this second dip in the light curve, Hubble provided compelling supporting evidence for the moon hypothesis by detecting the planet's transit more than an hour earlier than predicted. "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".

"That's been a key driver for us for a while, just trying to understand the cosmic habitats out there that we might look for, for life", says Kipping.

A hunt for exomoons - bodies that orbit these distant planets - has proceeded in parallel. Astronomers think numerous gas giants' moons are captured asteroids. While not a candidate for life themselves, Jupiter-like planets in the habitable zone may harbor rocky moons, called exomoons, that could sustain life.

It's not like the exomoon in "Avatar" or Endor from "Star Wars", Teachey said, "but going forward, I think we're opening doors to finding worlds like that". "But we did think it was interesting enough to try to get more data on". Because Kepler can no longer observe the same field, we asked for some follow up observations with Hubble.

Artist's impression of the exoplanet Kepler-1625b with its suspected moon. Once the James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2021, the search for exomoons may be full of possibilities.

Until now, no exomoons have been confirmed.

"If this does pan out and turn into a true discovery, it would be really revolutionary, but I don't think we're quite there yet", says Megan Bedell, an astronomer at the Flatiron Institute in NY.

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