Astronomers have discovered a trove of exoplanets—more than 700 worlds in orbit around distant stars, with leads on thousands of additional suspects. So now, naturally, they're beginning to ask: What moons might be in orbit about these planets?
It is a reasonable question. Most of the planets in our solar system host sizable natural satellites. And in some planetary systems, the moons of an extrasolar planet could themselves be favorable habitats for extraterrestrial life.
To answer it, a team of astronomers is now digging through publicly available data from Kepler, NASA's prolific exoplanet-finding spacecraft, in hopes of detecting the faint signal of the first known exomoon.
David Kipping, who wrote his PhD thesis at University College London last year on exomoons, now a postdoctoral scholar at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is leading the Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler project, or HEK. He and his colleagues described the HEK campaign in a recent study posted to the preprint Web site arXiv.org that has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.
"When I first started this, I was just seeing what was possible," Kipping says. "As I went on with this, I realized that it wasn't just a crazy idea." He and his colleagues calculated that if large moons are common in the galaxy, Kepler might be sensitive enough to find them.
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