Have astronomers found 1st moon outside our solar system?

Three-and-a-half hours later, Hubble detected a much smaller dip in the star's brightness consistent with a large moon trailing the planet.

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft, with an assist from the more powerful Hubble Space Telescope, has found what appears to be a huge moon orbiting a gas giant planet 8,000 light years away. Another dip could well be a moon - known as an exomoon outside our solar system.

If confirmed, this will be the first time a moon has been found outside of the solar system, according to a new study detailing the finding in the journal Science Advances.

This discovery was made by two of NASA's most celebrated telescopes, Hubble and Kepler, which were used by two astronomers, Alex Teachey and David Kipping, from Columbia University.

Like its moon, Kepler-1625b is also bigger than its counterparts in the Solar System. It's comparable to so-called hot Jupiters, gas giant exoplanets that are closer to their stars than Jupiter is to its own, and warmer.

"An extraterrestrial civilization watching the Earth and Moon transit the Sun would note similar anomalies in the timing of Earth's transit", Kipping said.

Kipping and Teachey discovered it among 300 exoplanets in Kepler's catalogue, all of which produce predictable dips in starlight that occur as an orbiting body passes in front of its sun - a phenomenon called a "transit".

The duo began their research by surveying 284 Kepler-discovered planets with long orbits.

Kipping and Teachey relied on the "transit" method already used by researchers to discover almost 4,000 planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets.

That planet, called Kepler-1625b, is one of thousands that scientists have recently detected around distant stars.

Kipping and Teachey noticed odd anomalies in the transit data of a gas planet, Kepler 1625b, which is several times the size of Jupiter. More observations were needed before they could draw any conclusions, but the evidence scored them 40 hours of observation time with the Hubble telescope. 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 further out. "It's exciting to see the hunt for the first exomoon continue, and with what would be a shockingly large moon", wrote Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute Technology in Cambridge who was not involved with the work, in an email.

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"That's a sizable shift, and it implies that there is something in the system wobbling that planet around", said Kipping.

"Kepler recorded just three transits of the planet in front of her star, and that's largely because the planet takes nearly a year to complete an orbit".

"It was definitely a shocking moment to see that Hubble light curve, my heart started beating a little faster as I kept looking at that signature".

Although the researchers can not say with certainty that an exomoon caused these effects, Kipping argues that the moon hypothesis offers the best single explanation for both anomalies.

It's not like the exomoon in "Avatar" or Endor from "Star Wars", Teachey said, "but going forward, I think we're opening doors to finding worlds like that". In addition, the ideal candidate planets hosting moons are in large orbits, with long and infrequent transit times.

They estimate the surface temperature of both to be 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Of the eight planets in our solar system, only Mercury and Venus have none. Kipping and Teachey weren't even sure how such a moon might have formed.

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.

To test their premise, the authors requested time on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Until now, no exomoons have been confirmed.

"If this does pan out and turn into a true discovery, it would be really revolutionary, but I don't think we're quite there yet", says Megan Bedell, an astronomer at the Flatiron Institute in NY. "We'd be very grateful if we had the means to use James Webb, because then we could really clean up", Kipping said.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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