New Study On Exomoons Opens Possibility Of Discovering Alien Life

Exomoons

Exoplanets, based on researches, do exist beyond our solar system. This year’s discovery, of some unknown foreign bodies, widen the understanding of astronomers, and at the same time, awakened the interest of the public. And so far, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the past two decades — mostly with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

The use of advanced technology intended for celestial discoveries traces back in 2009. As of mid-March 2018, Kepler has discovered 2,342 confirmed exoplanets and revealed the existence of perhaps 2,245 exoplanets, totaling to 3,706 sightings, according to Space.com.

So far in 2019, NASA has two utmost observations regarding “Exoplanets —” a stepping stones towards a more significant finding on other celestial bodies that may be essential for humans in the future.

Earlier this year, NASA’s specialized team was focusing on a unique kind of exoplanet; one that’s the same size as Earth which orbits a sun-like star in the habitable zone. The habitable zone means that a planet’s temperature allows liquid water to form oceans — one that can be considered critical for life to exist, just like Earth.

And last month, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), the George August University of Gottingen, and the Gottingen Observatory discovered 18 Earth-sized planets beyond the solar system. They found out that the smaller ones are the targets in the search for Earth-like planets due to its potential of having an inhabitable environment outside the solar system.

Today, as NASA re-discovers the world outside our planet, it has again examined other celestial bodies that may be found essential to understand life beyond Earth. Moons orbiting planets outside our solar system are believed to offer another hint about the pool of worlds that may be home to extra-terrestrial life. The research originated from astrophysicist at the University of Lincoln.

Records from NASA’s Kepler showed that more than 4000 planets are orbiting stars outside the solar system. Ninety-six percent of these so-called exoplanets are significantly larger than the Earth, and most of them are comparable with the dimensions of gas giants like Neptune or Jupiter.

But the most newsworthy fact regarding these exoplanets, most especially large gas giants, may harbor moons which contain liquid water. According to Dr. Sutton, these moons can be internally heated by the gravitational pull of the planet they orbit. This understanding leads to the formation of liquid water well outside the normal narrow habitable zone for planets that we are currently trying to find Earth-like planets. Researchers believe that if they can find them, moons offer a more promising avenue to finding extra-terrestrial life.

According to Dr. Sutton’s latest research, moons orbiting the exoplanet J1407b, have a probability of containing liquid water. Aside from that, they also analyzed whether these moons may have caused gaps in the planet’s ring system.

Before formulating the answers, one challenge that Dr. Sutton and the team had encountered was the fact that exomoons were challenging to detect due to their sizes as well as the distance from the earth. Scientists have the rare chance to spot them by looking at the effect they cause on objects around them just like “planetary rings.” In the case of exoplanet J1407b, its exomoon was being carefully studied, including its influence on the planet itself.


Illustration of an exoplanetary system, potentially with an exomoon orbiting it.
 NASA/DAVID HARDY, VIA ASTROART.ORG

When these planetary rings were found to be presently orbiting around exoplanet J1407b, Dr. Sutton ran computer simulations to model the rings. He found out that the said rings are 200 times larger than those around Saturn. Gravitational forces between all particles were considered and used to update the positions, velocities, and accelerations in the computer models of the planet and its ring system.

Moreover, the team also analyzed the moon, which orbited at various ratios outside of the rings that caused gaps and form an unexpected 100 orbital periods. Meaning, this is not an ordinary moon that orbits another exoplanet.

However, further research revealed that the orbiting moon did affect the scattering of particles along the ring edge — proof that the moon is active as well as the exoplanet itself. Hence, the understanding opens a possible indication that the moon may contain liquid water, as it can be internally heated by the gravitational pull of the planet they orbit — which then leads to the development of liquid water outside the normal narrow habitable zone that may be essential for the human-life form to exist.

The habitable zone means that a planet’s temperature allows liquid water to form oceans, one that can be considered critical for life to exist just like Earth. If this condition existed in one of the newly found planets, then it is possible that the Earth is not alone in housing living organisms.

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