First evidence of moon outside our solar system: Astronomers

An illustration of the exoplanet Kepler 1625b with its large hypothesized moon

An illustration of the exoplanet Kepler 1625b with its large hypothesized moon

Recently, NASA's Kepler space telescope surveyed for moons in a sample of 284 transiting planets - planets that pass between a star and an observer, resulting in a momentary dimming of the star's light. "That demands a higher level of rigor and skepticism than you would normally apply to a run-of-the-mill detection".

Did the Hubble Space Telescope come up with evidence of the first moon orbiting a planet outside of our solar system? However, during its four-year mission, Kepler found no evidence for a second planet in the stellar system.

The researchers found one instance, in Kepler 1625b, that had intriguing anomalies.

Kipping has spent a decade working on the "exomoon hunt". It makes sense, Teachey said, that the first moon scientists spot would also be a giant. Earth's companion keeps our planet's tilt stable and affects the tides. Or perhaps, like Earth's moon, it is actually a product of its planet, formed in some catastrophic collision.

This NASA photo taken on July 20, 1969 shows astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. saluting the U.S. flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission. It is therefore unlikely to have a solid surface and is most likely a largely gaseous body, like the planet which it orbits every 22 days.

Kipping and his colleague Alex Teachey made the discovery after analyzing data from almost 300 distant planets discovered using the Kepler space telescope. They checked about 300 planets for any weirdness that might mean a moon.

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This graphic depicts how the astronomers believe the Kepler-1625 system works, with the exomoon orbiting along a wide, highly inclined path around its enormous parent world. However, the star itself, as the team have ascertained from Kepler data, is so quiet they can't even detect its rotation. 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.

The researchers also estimate that the new find is only 1.5 per cent of the mass of its parent planet, and the planet is several times the mass of Jupiter. This is consistent with the planet and moon orbiting a common center of gravity (barycenter) that would cause the planet to wobble from its predicted location. And they noticed weird deviations in the "light curve" generated by the 19-hour-long transit of Kepler-1625b, a planet about three times heftier than Jupiter that orbits a star about as massive as our own sun.

"Furthermore, the size we've calculated for this moon, about the size of Neptune, has hardly been anticipated, and so that, too, is reason to be careful here", Teachey said. "We should expect to see something like this before we see the really small moons".

An artist's impression shows the Jupiter-sized exoplanet Kepler-1625b transiting its parent star with the Neptune-sized candidate exomoon in tow. "So if they had terrestrial moons around them, then those would be habitable worlds", says Bedell.

Thousands of exoplanets have previously been found by astronomers, with some suggesting they could possibly support life, but this is the first time scientists have ever found what they believe is a moon orbiting one of them, the newly-released study shows. "I would call that a moon, but to some extent I think this is something of semantics - what people want to define as a planet and moon or a binary system". "If confirmed by follow-up Hubble observations, the finding could provide vital clues about the development of planetary systems and may cause experts to revisit theories of how moons form around planets". "I think the real question is not whether they exist", says Kipping, "but how big do they get?"

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