Scientists think they’ve found the first moon outside our solar system
06 October, 2018, 03:36
Such exomoons have been elusive until now - but it looks like that has finally changed.
"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.
The gas giants in our own solar system have rocky and icy moons, but no examples of having gas-giant moons.
 While both the planet and its candidate moon are within the habitable zone, where moderate temperatures allow for the existence of liquid water, both bodies are considered to be gaseous and therefore unsuitable for life as we know it. The entire system is located around 8,000 light-years away, a distance recently revised with the aid of Gaia data. Artist's impression of the planet Kepler-1625b transiting its star with the suspected exomoon in tow is shoown above.
Kipping and Teachey noticed unusual anomalies in the transit data of a gas planet, Kepler 1625b, which is several times the size of Jupiter. But it wasn't enough information. However, during its four-year mission, Kepler found no evidence for a second planet in the stellar system. Three transits was tantalising, but not conclusive. Panel 3 shows the completed transit light curve of the planet. "Our analysis of the new light curve reveals two substantial anomalies", Kipping explained during a press briefing. The researchers monitored the planet before and during its 19-hour-long transit across the face of the star. These observations ended before a full transit of the moon could be measured. Kepler-1625b stood out.
It was discovered when Columbia astronomers Kipping and Alex Teachey used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to follow up on an intriguing find from data in the Kepler Space Telescope's exoplanet catalog. No one, however, has ever conclusively found an alien moon. "Science can't operate by teams such as ourselves refusing to publish our results and hiding behind closed doors", Kipping says in an online outreach video posted concurrently with the paper. Until now, astronomers have never found solid evidence for a moon. As with most "first" discoveries, this first exomoon detection is not yet absolutely conclusive, as the signals are at the limit of what is now measurable, but I am hopeful that its existence will be confirmed with subsequent observations.
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Although moons are common in our solar system, which has almost 200 natural satellites, the long search for interstellar moons has been an empty one. And, based on their earlier data, the researchers would expect the moon to be trailing Kepler-1625b at this point in its orbit. A moon could cause that kind of an uncertain, wobbly path, they noted. "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", he notes.
"It's the unknown unknowns which are ultimately uncharacterizable", Kipping said.
The moon is estimated to be only 1.5% the mass of its companion planet, which is close to the mass-ratio between the Earth and its moon.
Jupiter's moons are believed to have formed from a ring of material; but again, none of Jupiter's moons are the size of Neptune.
It may have been a wayward planet captured by the larger body.
For now, we can't get any answers to those questions, but we can at least hope the moon discovery will be confirmed, hopefully by future Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope Observations.
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