by Staff Writers
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Dec 15, 2008
Moons outside our solar system with the potential to support life have just become much easier to detect, thanks to research by an astronomer at University College London (UCL).
David Kipping, whose work is funded by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has found that such moons can be revealed by looking at wobbles in the velocity of the planets they orbit.
His calculations, which appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on 11th December, not only allow us to confirm if a planet has a satellite but to calculate its mass and distance from its host planet - factors that determine the likely habitability of a moon.
Out of the 300+ exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) currently known, almost 30 are in the habitable zone of their host star but all of these planets are uninhabitable gas giants.
The search for moons in orbit around these planets is important in our search for alien life as they too will be in the habitable zone but are more likely to be rocky and Earth-like, with the potential to harbour life.
"Until now astronomers have only looked at the changes in the position of a planet as it orbits its star. This has made it difficult to confirm the presence of a moon as these changes can be caused by other phenomena, such as a smaller planet," said David Kipping.
"By adopting this new method and looking at variations in a planet's position and velocity each time it passes in front of its star, we gain far more reliable information and have the ability to detect an Earth-mass moon around a Neptune-mass gas planet."
The appearance of wobbles in a planet's position and velocity are caused by the planet and its moon orbiting a common centre of gravity. While the old method of looking at the wobbles in position allowed astronomers to search for moons, it did not allow them to determine either their mass or their distance from the planet.
Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said, "It's very exciting that we can now gather so much information about distant moons as well as distant planets. If some of these gas giants found outside our solar system have moons, like Jupiter and Saturn, there's a real possibility that some of them could be Earth-like."
University College London (UCL)
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
Life Beyond Earth
|The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement|