The hunt for exomoons begins

The hunt for planets beyond our own Solar System continues at a remarkable pace with new worlds being announced every few months. Now though one team of astronomers plans to go one step further by searching for the moons that may orbit these alien worlds. Dr David Kipping is leading the Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler project...

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By Will Gater



The HEK project will search for moons orbiting exoplanets. Credit: NASA and G. Bacon (STScI)

 

The hunt for planets beyond our own Solar System continues at a remarkable pace with new worlds being announced every few months. Now though one team of astronomers plans to go one step further by searching for the moons that may orbit these alien worlds.

Dr David Kipping is leading the Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler project which will use data from NASA’s venerable Kepler space telescope to study the light from thousands of stars. By carefully scrutinizing the light from each of these stars, Kipping and his colleagues will search for planets and their moons passing in front of (or transiting) their parent star. These transits will cause dips in the stars’ brightnesses that Kipping’s team hope to spot and analyze.

Speaking to Sky at Night Magazine at the 2012 National Astronomy Meeting, in Manchester, Kipping explained what the group will be looking for in the Kepler data. “The techniques that we will use are twofold. We will look for wobbles of the host planet which are due to the gravity of the moon pushing and pulling it around and we will also look for the transit of the exomoon itself. So when the moon goes in front of its parent star we should also see a little transit right next to the big one due to the planet.”

"We can detect Earth-sized, Earth-mass moons if they are out there"

 

The project won’t be sensitive enough to unearth moons like the ones in our own Solar System however. It will hunt out moons with sizes more comparable to the diameter of our own planet. “Our sensitivity limit is roughly the same as Kepler has for exoplanets,” says Kipping. “The smallest exoplanet Kepler has found is about 0.57 Earth radii. So we can detect Earth-sized, Earth-mass moons if they are out there.”

Finding Earth-sized exomoons orbiting distant exoplanets would of course have intriguing astrobiological implications. Namely it could add to the number of places astronomers need to consider when assessing the habitability of exoplanetary systems.

For now though Kipping and his team are concentrating on the hunt for the moons themselves. “If we see something we’ll report it and if we don’t see anything we’ll also say so. Either way, we should be able to work out how common large Earth-like moons are in the next few years.”

Click here for more from the National Astronomy Meeting

 

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