December 17, 2018

First moon outside the solar system could be as big as Neptune

07 October 2018, 12:30 | Ross Houston

Artist’s impression of the exoplanet Kepler 1625b transiting the star with the potential exomoon in tow

Artist’s impression of the exoplanet Kepler 1625b transiting the star with the potential exomoon in tow

Compared to the size and mass of their planets, moons are tiny. Just as the first alien planets were unexpected "hot Jupiters" that revolved close to their stars, this first reported "exomoon" is also odd: a Neptune-size megamoon, some 8000 light-years away, that looms over a giant planet, twice as large in the sky as Earth's moon.

The discovery, detailed by researchers yesterday, was a surprise, and not because it showed that moons exist elsewhere ― they felt it was only a matter of time for one to be found in another star system.

With help from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers say they have found compelling evidence for the first known moon outside the solar system.

"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.

Moons are kind of the next frontier when it comes to understanding alien solar systems, says Bedell: "They capture our imagination". "To be honest, we never really anxious too much about habitability, just because they're both gas giants". The pair would have a similar mass and radius ratio to the Earth and its moon but scaled up by a factor of 11.

After watching the planet, the researchers noticed that shortly after it passed in front of its star, there was a second dip of light, indicating that there was "a moon trailing the planet like a dog following its owner on a leash".

This is exactly what the researchers saw: "The location, shape and depth of this event appear consistent with a Neptune-sized moon transiting in front of the star", said Dr Kipping.

In looking for exomoons, the researchers analyzed data from 284 Kepler-discovered planets that were in comparatively wide orbits, with periods greater than 30 days, around their host star.

"A companion moon is the simplest and most natural explanation for the second dip in the light curve and the orbit-timing deviation", Teachey said. Still, further observations by Hubble are needed to fully confirm the existence of Kepler-1625b-i. Secondly, the planet's transit time occurred earlier than expected, which could be caused by an orbiting moon pulling at the planet and causing it to wobble.

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The Kepler and Hubble observations, along with modeling work, suggest that the moon is about the size of Neptune and 1.5 percent as massive as Kepler-1625b.

The Kepler results were enough for the team to get 40 hours of time with Hubble to intensively study the planet, obtaining data four times more precise than that of Kepler.

Scientists may have detected the first moon orbiting a planet in a far-off solar system, though they caution that they still want to confirm the finding with another round of telescope observations. But there is a chance we could detect the presence of a major feature of our Solar System elsewhere: exomoons.

"A moon is an excellent explanation to the data at hand", Kipping said.

Roughly 7,000 light years away from us, orbiting around a Sun-like star in the constellation Cygnus, is a single, huge exoplanet, known as Kepler-1625b.

The second anomaly concerned changes in the star's brightness during and after the planet's transit. The planet's name is Kepler-1625b. The exomoon orbits roughly 3 million km from its planet.

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. "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 astronomers are uncertain how this potential moon might have formed, given its size. Observations of the light curves made by the Hubble Space Telescope reveals two anomalies, clues that there might be something else lurking there too. It makes sense, Teachey said, that the first moon scientists spot would also be a giant.

A current theory of planetary formation suggests that objects like this are unlikely to have formed in place with their Jupiter-mass planets, but would instead be objects captured by the gravity of the planet later on in the evolution of a planetary system. "We'd be very grateful if we had the means to use James Webb, because then we could really clean up", Kipping said.

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