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07 October 2018, 12:30 | Dale Webster
Scientists think they’ve found the first moon outside our solar system
This graphic shows the planets in our own solar system, and the close to 200 known moons that orbit them.
Astronomers can confirm those objects outside the solar system by observing a dip in the amount of light emanating from stars when they cross in front of the stars.
"It's big and weird by solar system standards", Columbia University astronomy professor David Kipping said of the moon, known as an exomoon because it is outside our solar system.
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.
Kipping has spent a decade working on the "exomoon hunt".
Even if it is confirmed as the first ever exomoon discovery, there are still questions to be answered, such as how a gas giant came to have a gas giant moon? But the results of those Hubble observations, published today in Science Advances, bring the putative moon back in play; the team finds two new lines of evidence for a moon.
"It's the unknown unknowns which are ultimately uncharacterizable", Kipping said.
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. But there is a chance we could detect the presence of a major feature of our Solar System elsewhere: exomoons. If you could stand on the planet's surface, the moon would appear twice as big as our own and would periodically block out the sun.
The researchers could find no predictions of a Neptune-sized moon in the literature, but Dr Kipping notes that nothing in physics prevents one. Another place to look is the many gas giants identified during the Kepler mission. The journal's deputy editor, Kip Hodges, praised the researchers for their cautious tone, given the hard and complicated process of identifying an exomoon. Kepler-1625b is a Jupiter-sized planet that orbits far enough away from its star-about the same distance Earth is from ours-that a moon could be stable.
Kipping and his colleague Alex Teachey made the discovery after analyzing data from almost 300 distant planets discovered using the Kepler space telescope.
Roughly 7,000 light years away from us, orbiting around a Sun-like star in the constellation Cygnus, is a single, vast exoplanet, known as Kepler-1625b. The transiting data associated with Kepler 1625b revealed some anomalies.
It's a moon outside our solar system, which we can't see directly, but when it passes in front of a star the light from that star dims - and that how it's detected. They observed the system throughout a predicted transit of the planet Kepler-1625b over the course of 40 hours.
"A moon is an excellent explanation to the data at hand", Kipping said. The researchers can't be completely sure, however, since the observation of the moon transit could not be completed. This is consistent with the planet and moon orbiting a common centre of gravity, causing the planet to wobble from its predicted location.
Thousands of planets have been detected around faraway stars in recent years. The researchers monitored the planet before and during its 19-hour-long transit across the face of the star. "It was a shocking moment to see that light curve".
"The search for life as we know it starts with water", Mayorga said.
"If we want to do moon hunting in the future, we will have to look at planets further [than one astronomical unit, or the distance between the sun and Earth]", Teachey said.
The researchers believe the star system to be 10 billion years old, which means it's had time to evolve. In addition, the ideal candidate planets hosting moons are in large orbits, with long and infrequent transit times. Other moons, such as Neptune's largest moon Triton, may have been captured from the Kuiper belt. "But we did think it was interesting enough to try to get more data on". They might be leftover bits from a planetary disk that have coalesced to form a moon or large chunks of material that have escaped the planet after impacts with asteroids.
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