First Exomoon Possibly Discovered Orbiting in a Distant Star System

Posted October 07, 2018

Kepler is best equipped to find planets that orbit close to their stars, and analyses of orbital dynamics - not to mention the evidence in our own solar system - suggest that moons will be more common farther out. In panel 1, the light curve begins to dip as the planet begins transiting in front of the star.

"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", co-author David Kipping, an astronomer at Columbia University in NY, told reporters earlier this week.

"If this were confirmed, then it would be a first-of-its-kind discovery, and it's important to remember that a first-of-its kind discovery demands a much higher degree of rigor, skepticism and confidence than a run-of-the-mill detection", he said.

Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances. "It's the unknown of unknowns which are ultimately uncharacterizeable". The Earth-moon system formed as a result of a giant impact in the early solar system. Based on computer modeling, the surface temperature on both the alien planet and the moon would be on the order of 175 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius), Kipping said. "To be honest, we never really anxious too much about habitability, just because they're both gas giants". An aging sun-like star in the constellation Cygnus is known to host a huge, gas giant planet the size of Jupiter, known as Kepler 1625b.

According to the authors of the study, it's possible that the second dip in light could be caused by another planet orbiting the star, but the Kepler Space Telescope didn't find any evidence of a second planet in the system during its observations of the star.

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As a planet passes in front of its host star, it blocks some of the light being observed by planet-hunting probes like Kepler.

While these observations mount further evidence for the existence of Kepler-1625b-i, they are not, as yet, conclusive.

There are other possible explanations, but "a companion moon is the simplest and most natural explanation for the second dip in the light curve and the orbit-timing deviation", Kipping said in a statement. The Kepler outcomes were sufficient enough for the group to achieve 40 hours of time with Hubble to vehemently study the planet acquiring the data four times more accurate than that of Kepler. "Unfortunately, the scheduled Hubble observations ended before the complete transit of the moon could be measured". The planet appeared to make its transit earlier than expected, suggesting that the gravity of something was tugging on it. That is roughly the same as the ratio of Earth's mass to the mass of the Moon.

Perhaps that wobble could be due to the presence of a second planet, the researchers thought. However, the search for moons orbiting these exoplanets was not successful - until today.

"It was definitely a shocking moment to see that Hubble 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".

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The researchers believe the star system to be 10 billion years old, which means it's had time to evolve.

A hunt for exomoons - bodies that orbit these distant planets - has proceeded in parallel. A giant moon like Neptune points to other mechanisms.

"But this is really a bit more speculative here", he stressed. Saturn's moons were formed from its rings. There are three primary theories about how moons form.

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.

Our solar system's moons all are rocky or icy objects.

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Jupiter itself has over 70 known moons, and four of these are comparable in size to our own, so multiple moon signals are not unexpected from exoplanet systems.