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.

Can Radio Waves Lead to Exomoons?

I firmly believe that our next greatest discovery will be detecting an exomoon in orbit around a distant exoplanet. Although no one has been able to confirm an exomoon — yet — the hunt is on.

Now, a research team thinks following a trail of radio wave emissions may lead astronomers to this groundbreaking discovery.

The difficulty comes in trying to spot an exomoon using existing methods. Some astronomers think that hidden deep within the wealth of data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission are miniscule signatures confirming the presence of exomoons.

If an exomoon transits the star immediately before or just after the planet does, there will be an added dip in the observed light. Although astronomers have searched through Kepler data, they’ve come up empty handed.

So the team, led by Ph.D. student Joaquin Noyola, from the University of Texas at Arlington, decided to look a little closer to home. Specifically, Noyola and colleagues analyzed the radio wave emissions that result from the interaction between Jupiter, and it’s closest moon, Io.

During its orbit, Io’s ionosphere interacts with Jupiter’s magnetosphere — a layer of charged plasma that protects the planet from radiation — to create a frictional current that emits radio waves. Finding similar emissions near known exoplanets could be the key to predicting where moons exist.

“This is a new way of looking at these things,” said Noyola’s thesis advisor, Zdzislaw Musielak, in a press release. “We said, ‘What if this mechanism happens outside of our Solar System?’ Then, we did the calculations and they show that actually there are some star systems that if they have moons, it could be discovered in this way.”

The team even pinpointed two exoplanets — Gliese 876b, which is about 15 light-years away, and Epsilon Eridani b, which is about 10.5 light-years away — that would be good targets to begin their search.

With such a promising discovery on the horizon, theoretical astronomers are beginning to address the factors that may deem these alien moons habitable.

“Most of the detected exoplanets are gas giants, many of which are in the habitable zone,” said coauthor Suman Satyal, another Ph.D. student at UT Arlington. “These gas giants cannot support life, but it is believed that the exomoons orbiting these planets could still be habitable.”

Of course one look at Io shows the drastic effects a nearby planet may have on its moon. The strong gravitational pull of Jupiter distorts Io, causing its shape to oscillate, which generates enormous tidal friction. This effect has led to over 400 active volcanoes.

But a moon at a slightly further distance could certainly be habitable. A second look at Europa — Jupiter’s second-most inner satellite — demonstrates this facet. It’s possible that life could very well exist under Europa’s icy crust.

Exomoons may be frequent, habitable abodes for life. But only time will tell.

The findings have been published in the Aug. 10 issues of the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

Magnetic Fields are Crucial to Exomoon Habitability

Astronomers believe that hidden deep within the wealth of data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission are minuscule signatures confirming the presence of exomoons. With such a promising discovery on the horizon, researchers are beginning to address the factors that may deem these alien moons habitable.

A new study led by Dr. René Heller from McMaster University in Canada and Dr. Jorge Zuluaga from the University of Antioquia in Colombia takes a theoretical look at habitability – exploring the key components that may make exomoons livable.  While stellar and planetary heating play a large role, it’s quickly becoming clear that the magnetic environments of exomoons may be even more critical.

An exoplanet’s habitability is first and foremost based on the circumstellar habitable zone – the temperature band around a star in which water may exist in its liquid state. Exomoons, however, have an additional set of constraints that affect their habitability. In a set of recent papers, Dr. Heller and Dr. Rory Barnes (from the University of Washington) defined a “circumplanetary habitable edge,” which is roughly analogous to the circumstellar habitable zone.

Here the question of habitability is based on the relationship between the exomoon and its host planet. The additional energy source from the planet’s reflected starlight, the planet’s thermal emission, and tidal heating in the moon may create a runaway greenhouse effect, rendering the exomoon uninhabitable.

One look at Io – Jupiter’s closest Galilean satellite – shows the drastic effects a nearby planet may have on its moon.  The strong gravitational pull of Jupiter distorts Io into an ellipsoid, whose orbit around the giant planet is eccentric due to perturbations from the other Galilean moons. As the orbital distance between Jupiter and Io varies on an eccentric orbit, Io’s ellipsoidal shape oscillates, which generates enormous tidal friction. This effect has led to over 400 active volcanic regions.

Note that this is an edge, not a zone.  It defines only an innermost habitable orbit, inside which a moon would become uninhabitable. The exomoon must exist outside this edge in order to avoid intense planetary illumination or tidal heating.  Exomoons situated in distant orbits, well outside the circumplanetary habitable edge, have a chance at sustaining life.

But the question of habitability doesn’t end here. Harmful space radiation can cause the atmosphere of a terrestrial world to be stripped off. Planets and moons rely heavily on magnetic fields to act as protective bubbles, preventing harmful space radiation from depleting their atmospheres.

With this in mind, Heller and Zuluaga set out to understand the evolution of magnetic fields of extrasolar giants, which are thought to affect their moons. It’s unlikely that small, Mars-sized exomoons will produce their own magnetic fields. Instead, they may have to rely on an extended magnetic field from their host planets.

This planetary magnetosphere is created by the shock between the stellar wind and the intrinsic magnetic field of the planet. It has the potential to be huge, protecting moons in very distant orbits.  Within our own Solar System Jupiter’s magnetosphere ends at distances up to 50 times the size of the planet itself.

Heller and Zuluaga computed the evolution of the extent of a planetary magnetosphere.  “Essentially, as the pressure of the stellar wind decreases over time, the planetary magnetic shield expands,” Dr. Heller told Universe Today. “In other words, the planetary magnetosphere widens over time.”

Evolution of the host planets magnetosphere for a
Evolution of the host planets magnetosphere (represented by the blue line) for Neptune-, Saturn-, and Jupiter-like planets. All increase over time by a varying amount.

The team applied these two models to three scenarios: Mars-sized moons orbiting Neptune-, Saturn-, and Jupiter-like planets. These three systems were always located in the center of the circumstellar habitable zone of a 0.7 solar-mass star. Here are the take-home messages:

1.) Mars-like exomoons beyond 20 planetary radii around any of the three host planets act like free planets around a star. They are well outside the habitable edge, experiencing no significant tidal heating or illumination. While their extreme distance is promising, they will never be enveloped within their host planet’s magnetosphere and are therefore unlikely to harbor life.

2.) Mars-like exomoons between 5 and 20 planetary radii face a range of possibilities. “Intriguingly, formation theory and observations of moons in the Solar System tell us that this is the range in which we should expect most exomoons to reside,” explains Dr. Heller.

For an exomoon beyond the habitable edge of a Neptune-like planet it may take more than the age of the Earth, that is, 4.6 billion years to become embedded within its host planet’s magnetosphere. For a Saturn-like planet it may take even longer, but for a Jupiter-like planet it will take less than 4.3 billion years.

3.) Mars-like exomoons inside 5 planetary radii are enveloped within the planetary magnetosphere early on but not habitable as they orbit within the planet’s habitable edge.

In order for an exomoon to be habitable it must exist well outside the habitable edge, safe from stellar and planetary illumination as well as tidal heating. But at the same time it must also exist near enough to its host planet to be embedded within the planet’s magnetosphere. The question of habitability depends on a delicate balance.

Dr. Zuluaga stressed that “one of the key consequences of this initial work is that although magnetic fields have been recognized as important factors determining the habitability of terrestrial planets across the Universe, including the Earth, Mars, and Venus, in the case of moons, the magnetic environment could be even more critical at defining the capacity of those worlds to harbor life.”

The paper has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available for download here.

The Hunt for Exomoons Begins!

The latest exciting undertaking in exoplanet research is the search for exomoons. A team led by Dr. David Kipping at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has jumped at this challenge. After having theoretically proven that detecting an Earth-sized exomoon is possible, the team carried out the first detailed search for an exomoon.

Are you leaning forward on the edge of your seat awaiting the results? Well here you go: the data show no evidence of a moon. That’s simply the luck of the draw. We didn’t discover an exoplanet on our first try either. I believe that this non-detection shows that we’re on the verge of our next greatest discovery.

The reasons for searching for exomoons are abundant. “Exomoons may be frequent, habitable abodes for life and so far we know next to nothing about the underlying frequency of such objects in the cosmos,” Dr. Kipping told Universe Today. “They also play an important role in the habitability of those planets which they orbit, for example the Moon is thought to stabilize the axial tilt of the Earth and so too the climate.”

The project titled “The Hunt of Exomoons with Kepler,” more commonly known as HEK, was formed with these reasons in mind. As such, the HEK project will search for exomoons that are likely to be habitable.

The first target is Kepler-22b – the first transiting exoplanet to have been detected in the habitable zone of its host star. At 2.4 Earth radii, it is too large to be considered an Earth-analog, but it could easily have an Earth-sized moon

There are currently two methods in which we may detect exomoons.

1.) Dynamic effects – the exomoon tugs the planet, which causes deviations in the times and durations of the host planet’s transits. This is similar to the radial velocity technique for detecting exoplanets.

2.) Transit effects – the exomoon may transit the star immediately before or just after the planet does. This will cause an added dip in the observed light. See this video for a great demonstration. This is similar to the light curve technique for detecting exoplanets.

The team modeled the initial transit light curves of Kepler-22b. They then injected an Earth-sized moon into the system in order to analyze the effects. While this caused clear variations in the light curve, such variations had to be above the level of noise.

As such, they also injected noise in the light curves, which mirrors that of the Kepler data. In the end, the variations in a star’s light curve due to the presence of an exomoon are much higher than the noise. The team is able to recover the correct answer with extremely high confidence.

Here Kipping et al. presents injected moon fits.  As an example, the upper left-hand figure shows an exoplanet transit, with a moon transiting as well. Here the moon transits first, causing the light to be blocked, then the planet follows, causing more of the light to be blocked.
Here Kipping et al. presents injected moon fits. As an example, the upper left-hand figure shows an exoplanet transit, with a moon transiting as well. Here the moon transits first, causing the light to be blocked, then the planet follows, causing more of the light to be blocked. Source: Kipping et al. 2013

The real data does not show deviations like the previous figure does. This non-detection implies that there is no moon with a mass greater than 0.54 times the mass of the Earth. While there is no Earth-analog in this system, there may be a smaller undetectable moon.

I asked Dr. Kipping about our chances of success in other systems. His answer: “That depends upon nature herself!” We have no idea how regularly nature produces moons in other solar systems. “There is nothing more exciting than working on a project where the answer is wholly unknown.”

But remember: two decades ago we were unsure if nature regularly produced planets. We have since observed them in abundance. I have to believe that with 168 moons in our solar system alone, we’re likely to find them in other systems.  We’re on the verge of the next greatest discovery. So stay tuned because I promise I’ll be writing about it when it happens.

Source: Kipping et al. 2013

Exciting Potential for Habitable ExoMoons

Imagine moons like Europa or Enceladus that are orbiting distant gas giant exoplanets located in the habitable zone of their star. What would be the potential for life on those moons? Hopefully one day we’ll find out, as that could be the scenario at an exoplanet that has been found by the Planet Hunter citizen science project. This is the second confirmed planet found by Planet Hunters, and the newest planet, PH2 b, is a Jupiter-size world in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star.

“There’s an obsession with finding Earth-like planets but what we are discovering, with planets such as PH2 b, is far stranger,” said Chris Lintott of Oxford University and Zooniverse. “Jupiter has several large water-rich moons – imagine dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth size moons, we”d see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers,lakes and all sorts of habitats – a surprising scenario that might just be common.”

Astronomers with Planet Hunters estimate the surface temperature PH2 b is 46 degrees Celsius. That’s a “just right” temperature for there to be liquid water, but it is extremely unlikely that life exists on PH2 b because it is a gas planet, and might be similar to Jupiter, so there is no solid surface or liquid environment for life to thrive. But if this planet is anything like the gas giant planets in our solar sytem, there could be a plethora of moons orbiting them.

“We can speculate that PH2 b might have a rocky moon that would be suitable for life, said lead author of the paper that has been published in arXiv, Dr Ji Wang, from Yale University. I can’t wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments. That could happen any day now.”

Additionally, the Zooniverse’s Planet Hunters team announced today that their citizen science volunteers have discovered 31 long-period planet candidates, with 15 of these new planet candidates orbiting in the habitable zones of other stars.

The team said that with 19 similar planets already discovered in habitable zones, where the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water, the new finds suggest that there may be a “traffic jam” of all kinds of strange worlds in regions that could potentially support life.

Although most of these planets are large, like Neptune or Jupiter, these discoveries increase the sample size of long-period planet candidates by more than 30% and almost double the number of known gas giant planet candidates in the habitable zone, Wang said. “In the future, we may find moons around these planet candidates (just like Pandora around Polyphemus in the movie Avatar) that allows life to survive and evolve under a habitable temperature.”

They also have a “watch list” for 9 further planet candidates which have only 2 transits observed.

To study the PH2 b system, the astronomy team from Planet Hunters used the HIRES spectrograph and NIRC2 adaptive optics system on the Keck telescopes in Hawaii to obtain both high resolution spectrum and high spatial-resolution images.

“The observations help us to rule out possible scenarios for false positive detections and give us a measured confidence level of more than 99.9% that PH2 b is a bona-fide planet rather than just an illusion,” Wang wrote on the Planet Hunter’s blog.

More than 40 volunteers were listed as co-authors on the paper, acknowledging the contributions of hundreds of volunteers to the effort. Among them is Roy Jackson, a 71-year-old retired police officer who lives in Birtley, near Gateshead. He said:
“It is difficult to put into words, the pleasure, wonderment and perhaps even pride that I have in some small way been able to assist in the discovery of a planet. But I would like to say that the discovery makes the time spent on the search well worth the effort.”

Mark Hadley, an electronics engineer from Faversham, another of the Planet Hunters credited on the paper, said: “Now, when people ask me what I achieved last year I can say I have helped discover a possible new planet around a distant star! How cool is that?”

“These are planet candidates that slipped through the net, being missed by professional astronomers and rescued by volunteers in front of their web browsers,” said Lintott. It’s remarkable to think that absolutely anyone can discover a planet.”

Sources: Yale University, Planet Hunters blog.