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Astronomers Discover Elemental Proof For A Moon Outside Our Solar System

Astronomers Discover Elemental Proof For A Moon Outside Our Solar System

A moon "is an excellent explanation" for these observations, he said. It was detected by the transit method, where a star's brightness dips periodically when a body blocks the light as it crosses the star's orbit.

Kepler, now virtually out of gas after an extraordinary mission, detected more than 2,600 exoplanets by looking for the tell-tale dip in brightness that occurs when a planet transits, or moves in front of its parent star as seen from Earth, blocking some of the star's light. There are just a handful of these in the Kepler database. 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. Yet there were weird signatures in the flicker of this far-flung star system.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A couple years ago, he and a colleague named Alex Teachey began scrutinizing data collected by NASA's Kepler space telescope.

Now they've conducted follow-up observations with the powerful Hubble Space Telescope.

Although the object itself can not be seen, there are hints it exists, according to the researchers: The planet moves around its star in a way that indicates something else is pulling on it gravitationally, probably a moon. And it remained dim for a while after the planet's passing.

The candidate moon, with the designation Kepler-1625b-i, is unusual because of its large size; it is comparable in diameter to the planet Neptune.

"A moon is an excellent explanation to the data at hand", Kipping said. So stellar noise is possible, but Teachey and Kipping found no evidence for it. Teachey said that it's likely this possible exomoon is "in some ways the lowest hanging fruit". He points out that our moon - the one with the astronaut footprints - does more than just inspire poets.

Still, the astronomers were astonished by their discovery. A Jupiter-sized body with a Neptune-sized moon is unlike anything scientists have seen before. Saturn's moons were formed from its rings. Or it could have been an object that was captured by the planet's gravity from elsewhere.

[4] A distant observer watching the Earth and Moon transit the Sun would note similar anomalies in the timing of Earth's transit. Or maybe its origin story resembles that of the moons of Jupiter, which are thought to have coalesced from a ring of gas and dust that circled the planet.

"It's raising new questions about sort of the dynamical processes that go on to create the planets and moons", Teachey said.




The irregular times of the transit can be explained by a moon wobbling around a planet, but there is also a chance it could also be a hidden planet.

It's hard to say how common such worlds might be. That's a big reason for the astronomers' tentativeness about their claims.

Future searches will target Jupiter-sized planets that are farther from their star than Earth is from the Sun. The James Cameron movie Avatartook place on Pandora, the moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system.

Likewise, Teachey is not discouraged by the fact that only one of almost 300 planets surveyed appeared to host a moon.

This graphic shows the planets in our own solar system, and the close to 200 known moons that orbit them. He has led the field over this time, so I am delighted that his persistence has paid off.

Teachey and Kipping compared the observations to a range of various models - including some that did not include a moon - that could potentially explain the data.

"If we had it all figured out, then we couldn't have much to do. We've still got lots of problems to work on".

Whether confirmed or not, the subject offers insight into how rare - or how common - our own solar system might be.

This graphic depicts how the astronomers believe the Kepler-1625 system works, with the exomoon orbiting along a wide, highly inclined path around its vast parent world. Another is capture, when objects are captured and pulled into orbit around a large planet - like Neptune's moon Triton, which is believed to be a captured Kuiper Belt object. 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.

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