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In 2009, NASA launched Kepler to search for planets outside the solar system – called extrasolar planets, or exoplanets – that are Earth-sized and have a chance of harboring life. As of December 2011, the spacecraft has discovered 2,326 exoplanets, over a hundred of which are likely candidates to meet the requirements.
A team of astronomers at NASA decided in early January to give Kepler an additional mission of hunting for extrasolar moons, or exomoons. The team believes in the potential existence of exomoons. Natural satellites only survive half the time when they and their companion planets are still undergoing evolution, though the many moons in our solar system increase the possibility.
With this new mission, titled Hunt of Exomoons with Kepler (HEK), Kepler may find life on these moons as well as on exoplanets and help astronomers understand planetary evolution and the formation of natural satellites. Kepler will first look at the exoplanets cataloged thus far to see if any of them have any such natural satellites. The exomoons would have to be similar in size, or larger, than our Moon because they would be easiest for the spacecraft to detect.
It is also possible that exomoons are capable of harboring life. In our solar system, Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus have liquid water beneath their surfaces. It is not known for sure if these two large moons contain life, though the presence of water heightens the probability as well as the probability that exomoons may be habitable.
Kepler will attempt to search for exomoons through two means: dynamical effects and eclipses features. With dynamical effects, the spacecraft would observe and measure the gravitational effect between the exoplanet and the exomoon (i.e. how much they tug on each other).
The amount of gravitational effects on the two bodies would determine whether or not the system would be a planet-moon system or a binary-planet system (it would be easy for the former to be mistaken with the latter). With eclipse features, Kepler would be on the lookout for solar and lunar eclipses, involving the exomoon, its companion planet, and their star. Kepler would see if the exomoon may make subtle changes in a star’s brightness through eclipsing the star, which would drop a bit in brightness.
Once Kepler finds an exomoon, it would be able to determine its size and mass based on the gravitational effect and eclipse features. Upon discovering the size and mass, it would then calculate the density. Thereafter, the exomoon’s composition can be determined, giving insight as to how to the exomoon formed and, ultimately, revealing the process of planetary evolution.
“Extrasolar moons represent an outstanding challenge in modern observational astronomy,” writes head author David Kipping in the team’s paper. Kipping, a member of the team at NASA, is an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Their detection and study would yield a revolution in the understanding of planet/moon formation and evolution, but perhaps most provocatively, they could be frequent seats for life in the Galaxy.”