Scientists Find What Could Be A History-Making Moon

Is this the first moon found outside our solar system?

Is this the first moon found outside our solar system?

Taking advantage of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers provide evidence of what could be the first exomoon - a moon orbiting a planet outside our solar system. The researchers' investigations showed that the HST-recorded transit of Kepler-1625b occurred almost 80 minutes earlier than expected, a pattern suggesting the presence of transit timing variations, or TTVs, which are among the first proposed methods to confirm the presence of exomoons. The first involves the amount of light blocked while the exoplanet orbits its host star. At more than three times the radii of the Earth, these gaseous planets are less common than terrestrial planets, but each is expected to host several large moons. Look at enough transits, and there could be a regular pattern of additional light blocked.

The bigger the drop in brightness, the larger the size of the object.

The alternative is what are called transit-timing variations. Previous studies suggest it's possible such large moons can coalesce from a planet's rings. The planet it orbits is as big as mammoth Jupiter.

Barely noticeable dips in the Kepler light curves, just to either side of the main lightcurve dip produced by the planet, pointed to the possibility a second body making transit alongside the gas giant, and since the location of the secondary dip changed with each transit of the planet, it indicated that the second body could be orbiting around the planet. Knowing when you're looking at a moon and not a planet is tricky. Methods based on gravitational interactions between the planet and star have more to work with when the two are closer together. In panel 1, the light curve begins to dip as the planet begins transiting in front of the star.

"That's indicative of something gravitationally tugging on the planet", explained Dr Kipping.

Both the study team and critics alike say that further confirmation is still needed, however, adding an element of caution to what would be a landmark discovery.

The astronomers are still waiting for more data to confirm the finding and said that the behavior of the planet could, theoretically, also be caused by another planet in that system - but the prevailing belief is that a moon orbiting the planet is the most convincing explanation.

The astronomers first got a hint of Kepler-1625b-i when they studied Kepler data on 284 exoplanets in search of an exomoon - what they describe as "little deviations and wobbles" beyond the normal transit dips in the light curve coming from the star as the planet moves across it.

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The scientists made the initial observations on the Kepler Space Telescope and used their evidence to secure 40 hours time on the Hubble.

This still doesn't prove the existence of an exomoon around Kepler-1625b.

But the Hubble data doesn't.

Teachey and his co-author David Kipping found the moon - named Kepler-1625b-i - by using the intrepid Hubble Space Telescope.

The planet was observed by Hubble before and during its 19-hour-long transit.

The researchers hoped to see two short dimming moments that might signal the presence of an exomoon around one of these transiting planets.

The authors then took all their data and tried to find a model that was consistent with it. And the third is moons forming from the disc materials that created the planets in the early days of the solar system. In the case of Kepler-1625b, however, 1.5 per cent of its mass makes its exomoon a giant, roughly the same mass as the planet Neptune! 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. None of these facts seems normal.

For Teachey and Kipping, the best and simplest explanation is that Kepler-1625b has a moon. So stellar noise is possible, but Teachey and Kipping found no evidence for it. But now, "we do obviously think that the moon is the best explanation", he said, adding that "just like any other good skeptical scientist, we're saying "maybe". This time ran out before the moon's complete transit could be measured.

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