First 'exomoon' may have been found

An illustration of the exoplanet Kepler 1625b with its large hypothesized moon

NASA's Kepler and Hubble space telescopes have spotted evidence of a Neptune-size satellite orbiting the Jupiter-like planet Kepler-1625b, which lies about 8,000 light-years from Earth, a new study reports.

The researchers note that in principle this anomaly could be caused by the gravitational pull of a hypothetical second planet in the system, although Kepler found no evidence for additional planets around the star during its four-year mission.

Astronomers may have found the first moon outside our solar system.

"We've tried our best to rule out other possibilities such as spacecraft anomalies, other planets in the system or stellar activity, but we're unable to find any other single hypothesis which can explain all of the data we have", said Dr Kipping, from Columbia University in NY.

It's an "extraordinary" find that "defies easy explanation" said co-author Alex Teachey - nothing like it exists in our own solar system. "To be honest, we never really anxious too much about habitability, just because they're both gas giants". The two worlds together are in an orbit around their parent star that's similar to Earth's orbit around the sun.

With the Hubble, they monitored the exoplanet Kepler-1625b as it passed between the star it orbits - Kepler-1625 - and Earth, and they looked at how the brightness of that star dimmed as the planet passed in front of it.

"We saw little deviations and wobbles in the light curve that caught our attention", Kipping said.

This artist's conception of the Kepler-1625 system shows the vast Jupiter-sized planet with its Neptune-sized moon.

In the meantime, a new release of Kepler data smoothed away many of those bumps, weakening the original case for a moon search.

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Despite the exomoon's huge size, proving its existence has been hard. The data suggested that a Jupiter-sized planet, Kepler-1625b, may be orbited by an exomoon. The Kepler outcomes were sufficient enough for the group to achieve 40 hours of time with Hubble to vehemently study the planet acquiring the data four times more accurate than that of Kepler. But everything astronomers know about planets and moons is informed by the makeup of the solar system. "It's exciting to see the hunt for the first exomoon continue, and with what would be a shockingly large moon", wrote Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute Technology in Cambridge who was not involved with the work, in an email.

This decrease in dimness is consistent with "a moon trailing the planet like a dog following its owner on a leash", Kipping said. The planet and moon are therefore likely to be in the "habitable zone" of the star, with equilibrium temperatures likely reaching 300-350 Kelvin (27-227°C).

Roughly 7,000 light years away from us, orbiting around a Sun-like star in the constellation Cygnus, is a single, enormous exoplanet, known as Kepler-1625b. "It was a shocking moment to see that light curve, my heart started beating a little faster and I just kept looking at that signature".

Although the researchers can not say with certainty that an exomoon caused these effects, Kipping argues that the moon hypothesis offers the best single explanation for both anomalies.

If indeed a moon, it would be about 2 million miles (3 million kilometers) from its planet and appear twice as big in its sky, as the moon does in ours.

He added: "We hope to re-observe the star again in the future to verify or reject the exomoon hypothesis". The astronomers are uncertain how this potential moon might have formed, given its size. A giant moon like Neptune points to other mechanisms. They might be leftover bits from a planetary disk that have coalesced to form a moon or large chunks of material that have escaped the planet after impacts with asteroids. They went public with their suspicion after Twitter sleuths pointed out that they had won time on the space telescope. "I would call that a moon, but to some extent I think this is something of semantics - what people want to define as a planet and moon or a binary system".

Until now, no exomoons have been confirmed.

"The mass ratio that we derive [between the moon and the planet] is only about 1.5%, so I'd call it a moon", he says. NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could really "clean-up" in the satellite search, Kipping said.

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