Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scanning the skies for Exoplanets and Exomoons in other solar systems

The best prospect for habitable exomoons may be around gas giants. 

Credit: NASA

The first exoplanet was discovered in 1994.

Twenty years later, NASA's exoplanet catalog lists more than 1700 planets confirmed around other stars.

Most of these extra-solar-systems have been measured by changes in light spectra, in stellar motion or dust disks around stars.

Some exoplanets-more than 40 as of today-have even been directly photographed.

Jupiter's moons
One way or the other, we know that exoplanets are out there in abundance, in places we thought they would be and in places we didn't dream a planet could possibly exist. So what comes next? Finding moons.

Exomoons are naturally formed satellites circling around planets in other solar systems. Like the exoplanets themselves, we assume that exomoons are out there in relatively high abundance.

This assumption is based partly upon what we see around us in our own Solar System and partly upon our hypotheses about planetary formation.

Saturn's moons
This is what we observe in our own Solar System: moons are extremely common.

From Earth's one Moon to Jupiter's (currently known) fifty, every planet in the Solar System one astronomical unit or more from the Sun has a natural satellite.

Even Pluto, no longer officially classified as a planet, has a smaller companion circling around it.

Of note, the solid bodies such as Earth and Pluto have very few companions, while gaseous bodies Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have many.

Pluto and Charon
Furthermore, the masses of the Moon and Charon have a very specific relationship to Earth and Pluto in terms of mass: each satellite is about 10-2 the mass of their parent planet.

By contrast, the ratio of satellite masses to parent planet masses for the gas giants is very different: 10-4.

The differences in mass-ratio, how massive the moon is compared to the parent planet, and the differences in composition between the moons of solid planets and those of the gas giants led to a search for different formation scenarios for Earth's moon and the moons of the outer planets.

This is the current hypothesis: that there are two different methods of satellite formation at work in our Solar System.

Amy Barr Mlinar
Both methods were recently reviewed by Dr.Amy Barr Mlinar of Brown University at the Space Telescope Science institute Spring Symposium.

"This has been worked out starting about in the 1960's up through now," said Barr, "You have this [moon/planet] mass ratio of about 10-2 for solid planets, and a [moon/planet] mass ratio of about 10-4 for planets with a gaseous envelope."

Essentially, difference in mass ratios reflects the two completely different origins of our Moon and the satellites of Jupiter.

At the high end of the moon/planet mass ratio, 10-2 are the satellites of solid bodies (Earth and Pluto). These moons were formed from collisions.

Sometime in the distant past an object some large percentage of Earth's size struck the Earth, knocking material away that later coalesced into the Moon. The same is likely true of Charon, Pluto's companion.

Read the full article here

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