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Will Kepler find habitable moons? (RAS PN 09/55)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 September 2009 18:11
Published on Thursday, 03 September 2009 08:00
exomoon2.jpg

Image: (c) David Durda

Since the launch of the NASA Kepler Mission earlier this year, astronomers have been keenly awaiting the first detection of an Earth-like planet around another star. Now, in an echo of science fiction movies a team of scientists led by Dr David Kipping of University College London thinks that they may even find habitable ‘exomoons’ too. The new results will appear in a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


WILL KEPLER FIND HABITABLE MOONS?
ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY PRESS INFORMATION NOTICE
Ref: RAS PN 09/55
Date: 3rd September 2009
For immediate release

Issued by:
Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Web: www.ras.org.uk

WILL KEPLER FIND HABITABLE MOONS? (RAS PN 09/55)

Since the launch of the NASA Kepler Mission earlier this year, astronomers have been keenly awaiting the first detection of an Earth-like planet around another star. Now, in an echo of science fiction movies a team of scientists led by Dr David Kipping of University College London thinks that they may even find habitable ‘exomoons’ too. The new results will appear in a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Kepler’s primary mission is to monitor thousands of stars looking for characteristic dips in their brightness as orbiting planets pass in front of them in so-called ‘transit’ events. The orbiting observatory should be able to time these transits to an extremely high accuracy.

Dr Kipping has already devised a method for detecting exomoons but no-one was sure whether it could really be used with current technology. He and his team have now modelled the properties of the instruments on Kepler, simulating the expected signal strength that a habitable moon would generate. An exomoon’s gravity tugs on the planet it orbits, making the planet wobble during its orbit around its host star. The resulting changes in the position and velocity of the planet should be detectable by Kepler through accurate timing of the transits.

The scientists considered a wide range of possible planetary systems and found that a fluffy Saturn-like planet (the ringed world is extremely low in mass for its size) gives the best possible chance for detecting a moon, rather than a denser Jupiter-like world. This is because planets like Saturn are large – blocking out a lot of light as they pass in front of their star – but very light, meaning they will wobble much more than a heavy planet.

If the Saturn-like planet is at the right distance from its star, then the temperature will allow liquid water to be stable on any sufficiently large moons in orbit around it and these could then be habitable.

The team found that habitable exomoons down to 0.2 times the mass of the Earth are readily detectable with Kepler. Potentially the observatory could look for Earth-mass habitable moons around 25,000 stars up to 500 light-years away from the Sun. In the whole sky, there should be millions of stars which could be surveyed for habitable exomoons with present technology.

Whether or not such bodies are common in the Galaxy is unknown but astronomers now have the tools and the methodology to find out.

Dr Kipping says, "For the first time, we have demonstrated that potentially habitable moons up to hundreds of light years away may be detected with current instrumentation"

‘As we ran the simulations, even we were surprised that moons as small as one-fifth of the Earth's mass could be spotted.

‘It seems probable that many thousands, possibly millions, of habitable exomoons exist in the Galaxy and now we can start to look for them."

FURTHER INFORMATION

Later this month the results will be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A preview version can be found at http://xxx.lanl.gov/abs/0907.3909

Space artist and planetary scientist Dan Durda has produced impressions of the view from some hypothetical habitable moons in orbit around Jupiter- and Saturn-like worlds. These are available for media use and can be downloaded from


Image credits: Dan Durda

For any other proposed use please contact Dan via his homepage at http://www.boulder.swri.edu/~durda/

CONTACT

Dr. David Kipping
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 3372
Mob: +44 (0)797 439 6734
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Web: http://www.davidkipping.co.uk

Dr. Steve Fossey
University of London Observatory
Tel: +44 (0)20 8238 8876
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.