NASA Supercomputer Assists the Hunt for ExomoonsA team of 21st-century explorers working for the Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project, based at Harvard University, are searching for exomoons using data from NASA's Kepler mission and the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility at NASA's Ames Research Centre. The discovery of exomoons - moons situated beyond our own solar system - would add to the growing list of celestial objects detected by the Kepler telescope that could potentially harbour life in some form. Read more
A team of 21st-century explorers working for the Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project, based at Harvard University, are searching for exomoons using data from NASA's Kepler mission and the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility at NASA's Ames Research Centre. The discovery of exomoons - moons situated beyond our own solar system - would add to the growing list of celestial objects detected by the Kepler telescope that could potentially harbour life in some form.
Title: In Search of Exomoons Author: David M. Kipping Two decades ago, astronomers began detecting planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, so-called exoplanets. Since that time, the rate of detections and the sensitivity to ever-smaller planets has improved dramatically with several Earth-sized planets now known. As our sensitivity dives into the terrestrial regime, increasingly the community has wondered if the moons of exoplanets may also be detectable, so-called "exomoons". Their detection represents an outstanding challenge in modern astronomy and would provide deep insights into the uniqueness of our Solar System and perhaps even expand the definition of habitability. Here, I will briefly review theoretical studies exploring the formation and evolution of exomoons, which serve to guide observational searches and provide testable hypotheses. Next, I will outline the different methods which have been proposed to accomplish this challenging feat and their respective merits. Finally, initial results from observational efforts will be summarised with a view to future prospects as well. Read more (1284kb, PDF)
Title: The detectability of habitable exomoons with Kepler Authors: Supachai Awiphan, Eamonn Kerins In this paper, the detectability of habitable exomoons orbiting around giant planets in M-dwarf systems using Transit Timing Variations (TTVs) and Transit Timing Durations (TDVs) with Kepler-class photometry is investigated. Light curves of systems with various configurations were simulated around M-dwarf hosts of mass 0.5 solar masses and radius 0.55 solar radii. Jupiter-like giant planets which offer the best potential for hosting habitable exomoons were considered with rocky super-Earth-mass moons. The detectability is measured by using the phase-correlation between TTV and TDV signals. Since the TDV signal is typically weaker than the TTV signal, confirmation of an exomoon detection will depend on being able to detect a TDV signal. We find that exomoons around planets orbiting within the habitable zone of an M-dwarf host star can produce both detectable TTV and TDV signatures with Kepler-class photometry. While aliasing between the planet period and moon period may hinder exomoon detection, we also find some strong correlation signatures in our simulation (eg. correlation: >0.7) which would provide convincing exomoon signatures. With the addition of red noise stellar variability, correlations generally weaken. However simulated examples with planet masses less than around 25 Earth masses, moons of mass 8-10 Earth masses and specific values of planet and moon periods still yield detectable correlation in 25-50% of cases. Our simulation indicates that Kepler provides one of the best available opportunities for exomoon detection. Read more (6754kb, PDF)
Title: The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK): II. Analysis of Seven Viable Satellite-Hosting Planet Candidates Authors: David M. Kipping, Joel Hartman, Lars A. Buchhave, Allan R. Schmitt, Gáspár A. Bakos, David Nesvorny From the list of 2321 transiting planet candidates announced by the Kepler Mission, we identify seven targets as having favourable properties for the capacity to dynamically maintain an exomoon and present a detectable signal. These seven candidates were identified through our automatic target selection (TSA) algorithm and target selection prioritisation (TSP) filtering, whereby we excluded systems exhibiting significant time-correlated noise and focussed on those with a single transiting planet candidate of radius less than 6 Earth radii. We find no compelling evidence for an exomoon around any of the seven KOIs but constrain the satellite-to-planet mass ratios for each. For four of the seven KOIs, we estimate a 95% upper quantile of M_S/M_P<0.04, which given the radii of the candidates, likely probes down to sub-Earth masses. We also derive precise transit times and durations for each candidate and find no evidence for dynamical variations in any of the KOIs. With just a few systems analysed thus far in the in-going HEK project, projections on eta-moon would be premature, but a high frequency of large moons around Super-Earths/Mini-Neptunes would appear to be incommensurable with our results so far.
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Life possible on extrasolar moons In their search for habitable worlds, astronomers have started to consider exomoons, or those likely orbiting planets outside the solar system. In a new study, a pair of researchers has found that exomoons are just as likely to support life as exoplanets. The research, conducted by René Heller of Germany's Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam and Rory Barnes of the University of Washington and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, will appear in the January issue of Astrobiology. About 850 extrasolar planets - planets outside the solar system - are known, and most of them are sterile gas giants, similar to Jupiter. Only a few have a solid surface and orbit their host stars in the habitable zone, the circumstellar belt at the right distance to potentially allow liquid surface water and a benign environment. Read more
In their search for habitable worlds, astronomers have started to consider exomoons, or those likely orbiting planets outside the solar system. In a new study, a pair of researchers has found that exomoons are just as likely to support life as exoplanets. The research, conducted by René Heller of Germany's Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam and Rory Barnes of the University of Washington and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, will appear in the January issue of Astrobiology. About 850 extrasolar planets - planets outside the solar system - are known, and most of them are sterile gas giants, similar to Jupiter. Only a few have a solid surface and orbit their host stars in the habitable zone, the circumstellar belt at the right distance to potentially allow liquid surface water and a benign environment.
Title: Exomoon habitability constrained by illumination and tidal heating Authors: René Heller (1), Rory Barnes (2,3) ((1) Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), Germany, (2) University of Washington, Seattle, USA, (3) NASA Astrobiology Institute, VPL Lead Team, USA) The detection of moons orbiting extrasolar planets ("exomoons") has now become feasible. Once discovered in the circumstellar habitable zone, questions about their habitability will emerge. Exomoons are likely to be tidally locked to their planet, and hence experience days much shorter than their orbital period around the star, and have seasons - all of which works in favour of habitability. These satellites can receive more illumination per area than their host planets, as the planet reflects stellar light and emits thermal photons. On the contrary, eclipses can significantly alter local climates on exomoons by reducing stellar illumination. In addition to radiative heating, tidal heating can be very large on exomoons, possibly even large enough for sterilisation. We identify combinations of physical and orbital parameters for which radiative and tidal heating are strong enough to trigger a runaway greenhouse. By analogy with the circumstellar habitable zone, these constraints define a circum-planetary "habitable edge". We apply our model to hypothetical moons around the recently discovered exoplanet Kepler-22b and the giant planet candidate KOI211.01 and describe, for the first time, the orbits of habitable exomoons. If either planet hosted a satellite at a distance greater than ten planetary radii, then this could indicate the presence of a habitable moon. Read more (7273kb, PDF)
Title: On the Direct Imaging of Tidally Heated Exomoons Authors: Mary Anne Peters, Edwin L. Turner We demonstrate the ability of existing and planned future telescopes, on the ground and in space, to directly image tidally heated exomoons orbiting gas-giant exoplanets. Tidally heated exomoons can plausibly be far more luminous than their host exoplanet and as much as 0.1% as bright as the system's stellar primary if it is a low mass star. Because emission from exomoons can be powered by tidal forces, they can shine brightly at arbitrarily large separations from the system's stellar primary with temperatures of several hundreds degrees Kelvin or even higher in extreme cases. Furthermore, these high temperatures can occur in systems that are billions of years old. Tidally heated exomoons may thus be far easier targets for direct imaging studies than giant exoplanets which must be both young and at a large projected separation (typically at least tens of AU) from their primary to be accessible to current generation direct imaging studies. Specifically, current instruments are capable of detecting exomoons with brightness temperature >600K and R>1Re in K-band. Future mid-infrared space telescopes, such as JWST and SPICA, will be capable of directly imaging tidally heated exomoons around the nearest two dozen stars with brightness temperature >300K and R>1Re orbiting at >12AU around stars within 4 parsecs of Earth at a 5 sigma confidence level in a 10000 second integration. In addition it is possible that some of the exoplanets which have already been directly imaged are actually tidally heated exomoons or blends of such objects with hot young planets; we speculate that Fomalhaut b could be such a case. If such exomoons exist and are sufficiently common (i.e., nearby), it may well be far easier to directly image an exomoon with surface conditions that allow the existence of liquid water than it will be to resolve an Earth-like planet in the classical Habitable Zone of its primary. Read more (903kb, PDF)
Title: The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK): I. Description of a New Observational Project Authors: David M. Kipping, Gáspár A. Bakos, Lars A. Buchhave, David Nesvorny, Allan Schmitt Two decades ago, empirical evidence concerning the existence and frequency of planets around stars, other than our own, was absent. Since this time, the detection of extrasolar planets from Jupiter-sized to most recently Earth-sized worlds has blossomed and we are finally able to shed light on the plurality of Earth-like, habitable planets in the cosmos. Extrasolar moons may also be frequent habitable worlds but their detection or even systematic pursuit remains lacking in the current literature. Here, we present a description of the first systematic search for extrasolar moons as part of a new observational project called "The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler" (HEK). The HEK project distills the entire list of known transiting planet candidates found by Kepler (2326 at the time of writing) down to the most promising candidates for hosting a moon. Selected targets are fitted using a multimodal nested sampling algorithm coupled with a planet-with-moon light curve modelling routine. By comparing the Bayesian evidence of a planet-only model to that of a planet-with-moon, the detection process is handled in a Bayesian framework. In the case of null detections, upper limits derived from posteriors marginalised over the entire prior volume will be provided to inform the frequency of large moons around viable planetary hosts, eta-moon. After discussing our methodologies for target selection, modelling, fitting and vetting, we provide two example analyses. Read more (3999kb, PDF)
Title: The Detectability of Moons of Extra-Solar PlanetsAuthors: Karen M. LewisThe detectability of moons of extra-solar planets is investigated, focussing on the time-of-arrival perturbation technique, a method for detecting moons of pulsar planets, and the photometric transit timing technique, a method for detecting moons of transiting planets. Realistic thresholds are derived and analysed in the in the context of the types of moons that are likely to form and be orbitally stable for the lifetime of the system. For the case of the time-of-arrival perturbation technique, the analysis is conducted in two stages. First, a preliminary investigation is conducted assuming that planet and moon's orbit are circular and coplanar. This analysis is then applied to the case of the pulsar planet PSR B1620-26 b, and used to conclude that a stable moon orbiting this pulsar planet could be detected, if its mass was >5% of its planet's mass (2.5 Jupiter masses), and if the planet-moon distance was ~ 2% of the planet-pulsar separation (23 AU). Time-of-arrival expressions are then derived for mutually inclined as well as non-circular orbits. For the case of the photometric transit timing technique, a different approach is adopted. First, analytic expressions for the timing perturbation due to the moon are derived for the case where the orbit of the moon is circular and coplanar with that of the planet and where the planet's orbit is circular and aligned to the line-of-sight, circular and inclined with respect to the line-of-sight or eccentric and aligned to the line-of-sight. Second, the timing noise is investigated analytically, for the case of white photometric noise, and numerically, using SOHO lightcurves, for the case of realistic and filtered realistic photometric noise. Read more (10416kb, PDF)
Title: Signals of exomoons in averaged light curves of exoplanetsAuthors: A.E. Simon, Gy.M. Szabó, L.L. Kiss, K. SzatmáryThe increasing number of transiting exoplanets sparked a significant interest in discovering their moons. Most of the methods in the literature utilize timing analysis of the raw light curves. Here we propose a new approach for the direct detection of a moon in the transit light curves via the so called Scatter Peak. The essence of the method is the valuation of the local scatter in the folded light curves of many transits. We test the ability of this method with different simulations: Kepler "short cadence", Kepler "long cadence", ground-based millimagnitude photometry with 3-min cadence, and the expected data quality of the planned ESA mission of PLATO. The method requires ~100 transit observations, therefore applicable for moons of 10-20 day period planets, assuming 3-4-5 year long observing campaigns with space observatories. The success rate for finding a 1 R_Earth moon around a 1 R_Jupiter exoplanet turned out to be quite promising even for the simulated ground-based observations, while the detection limit of the expected PLATO data is around 0.4 R_Earth. We give practical suggestions for observations and data reduction to improve the chance of such a detection: (i) transit observations must include out-of-transit phases before and after a transit, spanning at least the same duration as the transit itself; (ii) any trend filtering must be done in such a way that the preceding and following out-of-transit phases remain unaffected.Read more (411kb, PDF)