A Moon Might Have Been Found Orbiting an Exoplanet

An artist's illustration of the Kepler 1625 system. The star in the distance is called Kepler 1625. The gas giant is Kepler 1625B, and the exomoon orbiting it is unnamed. The moon is about as big as Neptune, but is a gas moon. Image: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak (STScI)

In the past three decades, the field of extrasolar planet studies has advanced by leaps and bounds. To date, 4,903 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,677 planetary systems, with another 8,414 candidates awaiting confirmation. The diverse nature of these planets, ranging from Super-Jupiters and Super-Earths to Mini-Neptunes and Water Worlds, has raised many questions about the nature of planet formation and evolution. A rather important question is the role and commonality of natural satellites, aka. “exomoons.”

Given the number of moons in the Solar System, it is entirely reasonable to assume that moons are ubiquitous in our galaxy. Unfortunately, despite thousands of know exoplanets, there are still no confirmed exomoons available for study. But thanks to Columbia University’s Professor David Kipping and an international team of astronomers, that may have changed. In a recent NASA-supported study, Kipping and his colleagues report on the possible discovery of an exomoon they found while examining data from the Kepler Space Telescope.

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Astronomers see a Moon-Forming Disk Around a Super-Jupiter

Recently, astronomers have been finding protoplanetary discs around certain stars.  Their discovery has helped kick off a new work in planetary formation theory.  But planets aren’t the objects that form from discs of material in space.  Moons do too.  Now, scientists led by Dr. Tomas Stolker of Leiden University and his team have delved deeper into the characteristics of a “protolunar” disc surrounding a “super Jupiter” exoplanet about 500 light-years away.

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A New Way to Search for Exomoons

We’d love to find another planet like Earth. Not exactly like Earth; that’s kind of ridiculous and probably a little more science fiction than science. But what if we could find one similar enough to Earth to make us wonder?

How could we find it? We progress from one planet-finding mission to the next, compiling a list of planets that may be “Earth-like” or “potentially habitable.” Soon, we’ll have the James Webb Space Telescope and its ability to study exoplanet atmospheres for signs of life and habitability.

But one new study is focusing on exomoons and the role they play in a planet’s habitability. If we find a Moon-like exomoon in a stable orbit around its planet, could it be evidence that the planet itself is more Earth-like? Maybe, but we’re not there yet.

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Incredible! Astronomers see a Moon-Forming Disk Around a Newly Forming Planet

Planetary formation is a complicated, multilayered process.  Even with the influx of data on exoplanets, there are still only two known planets that are not yet fully formed.  Known as PDS 70b and PDS 70c, the two planets, which were originally found by the Very Large Telescope, are some of the best objects we have to flesh out our planetary formation models. And now, one of them has been confirmed to have a moon-forming disk around it.

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The Moons of Rogue Planets Could Have Liquid Surface Water and Thick Atmospheres. They Could be Habitable

The search for life on exoplanets takes a fairly conservative approach. It focuses on life that is similar to that of Earth. Sure, it’s quite possible that life comes in many exotic forms, and scientists have speculated about all the strange forms life might take, but the simple fact is that Earth life is the only form we currently understand. So most research focuses on life forms that, like us, are carbon based with a biology that relies on liquid water. But even with that narrow view, life could still be hiding in places we don’t expect.

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Gas and Dust Stop Planets From Eating Their Moons

Beyond Earth’s only satellite (the Moon), the Solar System is packed full of moons. In fact, Jupiter alone has 79 known natural satellites while Saturn has the most know moons of any astronomical body – a robust 82. For the longest time, astronomers have theorized that moons form from circumplanetary disks around a parent planet and that the moons and planet form alongside each other.

However, scientists have conducted multiple numerical simulations that have shown this theory to be flawed. What’s more, the results of these simulations are inconsistent with what we see throughout the Solar System. Thankfully, a team of Japanese researchers recently conducted a series of simulations that yielded a better model of how disks of gas and dust can form the kinds of moon systems that we see today.

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Planet Sizes Matter for Habitability Too.

In order to be considered habitable, a planet needs to have liquid water. Cells, the smallest unit of life, need water to carry out their functions. For liquid water to exist, the temperature of the planet needs to be right. But how about the size of the planet?

Without sufficient mass a planet won’t have enough gravity to hold onto its water. A new study tries to understand how size affects the ability of a planet to hold onto its water, and as a result, its habitability.

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Here’s a First. Astronomers See a Moon Forming Around a Baby Exoplanet

Astronomers have discovered, for the first time, moons forming in the disk of debris around a large exoplanet. Astronomers have suspected for a long time that this is how larger planets—like Jupiter in our own Solar System—get their moons. It’s all happening around a very young star named PDS 70, about 370 light years away in the constellation Centaurus.

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First Exomoon Found! A Neptune-Sized Moon Orbiting a Jupiter-Sized Planet

An artist's illustration of the Kepler 1625 system. The star in the distance is called Kepler 1625. The gas giant is Kepler 1625B, and the exomoon orbiting it is unnamed. The moon is about as big as Neptune, but is a gas moon. Image: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak (STScI)

A pair of astronomers combing through data from the Kepler spacecraft have discovered the first exomoon. The moon is in the Kepler 1625 system about 8,000 light years away, in the constellation Cygnus. It orbits the gas giant Kepler 1625b, and, unlike all the moons in our Solar System, this one is a “gas moon.”

It was only a matter of time before we found an exomoon. We’ve found thousands of exoplanets, thanks mostly to the Kepler spacecraft. And where there are planets, we can expect moons. But even though it seemed inevitable, the first confirmed exomoon is still exciting.

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Moons of Confusion: Why Finding Extraterrestrial Life may be Harder than we Thought

Astronomers and planetary scientists thought they knew how to find evidence of life on planets beyond our Solar System. But, a new study indicates that the moons of extrasolar planets may produce “false positives” adding an inconvenient element of uncertainty to the search.

More than 1,800 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist so far, with the count rising rapidly. About 20 of these are deemed potentially habitable. This is because they are only somewhat more massive than Earth, and orbit their parent stars at distances that might allow liquid water to exist.

Astronomers soon hope to be able to determine the composition of the atmospheres of such promising alien worlds. They can do this by analyzing the spectrum of light absorbed by them. For Earth-like worlds circling small stars, this challenging feat can be accomplished using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018.

They thought they knew how to look for the signature of life. There are certain gases which shouldn’t exist together in an atmosphere that is in chemical equilibrium. Earth’s atmosphere contains lots of oxygen and trace amounts of methane. Oxygen shouldn’t exist in a stable atmosphere. As anyone with rust spots on their car knows, it has a strong tendency to combine chemically with many other substances. Methane shouldn’t exist in the presence of oxygen. When mixed, the two gases quickly react to form carbon dioxide and water. Without some process to replace it, methane would be gone from our air in a decade.

On Earth, both oxygen and methane remain present together because the supply is constantly replenished by living things. Bacteria and plants harvest the energy of sunlight in the process of photosynthesis. As part of this process water molecules are broken into hydrogen and oxygen, releasing free oxygen as a waste product. About half of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere comes from bacteria. The rest is from human activities, including the growing of rice, the burning of biomass, and the flatulence produced by the vast herds of cows and other ruminants maintained by our species.

By itself, finding methane in a planet’s atmosphere isn’t surprising. Many purely chemical processes can make it, and it is abundant in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and on Saturn’s large moon Titan. Although oxygen alone is sometimes touted as a possible biomarker; its presence, by itself, isn’t rock solid evidence of life either. There are purely chemical processes that might make it on an alien planet, and we don’t yet know how to rule them out. Finding these two gases together, though, seems as close as one could get to “smoking gun” evidence for the activities of life.

A monkey wrench was thrown into this whole argument by an international team of investigators led by Dr. Hanno Rein of the Department of Environmental and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada. Their results were published in the May, 2014 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Suppose, they posited, that oxygen is present in the atmosphere of a planet, and methane is present separately in the atmosphere of a moon orbiting the planet. The team used a mathematical model to predict the light spectrum that might be measured by a space telescope near Earth for plausible planet-moon pairs. They found that the resulting spectra closely mimicked that of a single object whose atmosphere contained both gasses.

Unless the planet orbits one of the very nearest stars, they showed it wasn’t possible to distinguish a planet-moon pair from a single object using technology that will be available anytime soon. The team termed their results “inconvenient, but unavoidable…It will be possible to obtain suggestive clues indicative of possible inhabitation, but ruling out alternative explanations of these clues will probably be impossible for the foreseeable future.”

References and further reading:

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Kaltenegger L., Selsis F., Fridlund M. et al. (2010) Deciphering spectral fingerprints of habitable exoplanets. Astrobiology, 10(1) p. 89-102.

Major J. (2013) Earthlike exoplanets are all around us. Universe Today

Rein H., Fujii Y., and Spiegel D. S. (2014) Some inconvenient truths about biosignatures involving two chemical species on Earth-like exoplanets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(19) p. 6871-6875.

Sagan C., Thompson W. R., Carlson R., Gurnett, D., Hord, C. (1993) A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft. Nature, 365 p. 715-721.