First 'exomoon' may have been found

05 Octobre, 2018, 14:37 | Auteur: Therese Cote

But now, a combination of old data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope and observations using the Hubble Space Telescope may have revealed the first evidence for an "exomoon", a moon orbiting an exoplanet.

Exomoons are the natural satellites of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system, of which there are now no confirmed examples.

Scientists monitored the planet before and during its 19-hour transit across the face of the star.

Astronomers have hunted for "exoplanets" - planets outside our solar sytem - for decades, but have never spotted an "exomoon", until now.

Astronomers may have found the first moon outside our solar system - a gas behemoth the size of Neptune. It will take more observation with the Hubble to confirm it.

Kipping and co-author Alex Teachey, a student at Columbia, published the results of their discovery on Wednesday. There's no analog for such a large moon in our own system. In our sky, it would appear two times bigger than Earth's moon, the researchers said. In this search, the Neptune-sized moon would have been among the easiest to detect because of its large size, scientists said. Kepler-1625b stood out.

The main dip in stellar brightness would be the planet itself crossing in front of its star. It was like "a moon trailing the planet like a dog following its owner on a leash", Kipping said.

"Unfortunately, the scheduled Hubble observations ended before the complete transit of the moon could be measured", Kipping said.

Hubble also provided supporting evidence for the moon hypothesis by measuring that the planet began its transit 1.25 hours earlier than predicted. This particular planet - or exoplanet - is about the same distance from its star as Earth is to the sun.

Perhaps that wobble could be due to the presence of a second planet, the researchers thought. But just one of them, Kepler 1625b, showed the type of anomaly they were looking for.

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For Teachey and Kipping, the best and simplest explanation is that Kepler-1625b has a moon. "It was a shocking moment to see that light curve".

Although the planet and its possible moon are within the habitable zone of their star, both are considered to be gas giants and "unsuitable for life as we know it", Kipping said.

He added: "The first exomoon is obviously an extraordinary claim and it requires extraordinary evidence". This could explain why the moon is 3 million kilometers from its planet; they were probably closer in the past.

They estimate the surface temperature of both to be 176 degrees Fahrenheit.

How such a moon would form, however, is the big question. There are three primary theories about how moons form.

However, in the case of the Earth-Moon system and the Pluto-Charon system - the largest of the five known natural satellites of the dwarf planet Pluto - an early collision with a larger body is hypothesised to have blasted off material that later coalesced into a moon.

An artist's impression of the gas giant Kepler 1625b with its large moon, Kepler 1625b-i; the pair has a similar mass and radius ratio to the Earth-Moon system but scaled up by a factor of 11. "And if validated, the planet-moon system-a Jupiter with a Neptune-sized moon-would be a remarkable system with unanticipated properties, in many ways echoing the unexpected discovery of hot Jupiters in the early days of planet hunting". This apparent super-size pairing of a gaseous moon and planet is 8000 light years away. So it remains a mystery - for now. The ideal candidate planets hosting moons are in wide orbits, with long and infrequent transit times.

"But going forward, I think we're opening the doors to finding worlds like that", Teachey said. That would confirm that the find is an exomoon.

Our hunt for exoplanets (planets further into the cosmos) has thrown up some truly unusual and fascinating examples in recent years, with confirmed discoveries now numbering in the thousands.

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