With NASA's Kepler mission showing the potential to detect Earth-sized objects, habitable moons may soon become science fact. If we find them nearby, a new paper by Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger shows that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to study their atmospheres and detect key gases like carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water vapor.
"If Pandora existed, we potentially could detect it and study its atmosphere in the next decade," said Lisa Kaltenegger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
So far, planet searches have spotted hundreds of Jupiter-sized objects in a range of orbits. Gas giants, while easier to detect, could not serve as homes for life as we know it. However, scientists have speculated whether a rocky moon orbiting a gas giant could be life-friendly, if that planet orbited within the star's habitable zone (the region warm enough for liquid water to exist).
"All of the gas giant planets in our solar system have rocky and icy moons," said Kaltenegger. "That raises the possibility that alien Jupiters will also have moons. Some of those may be Earth-sized and able to hold onto an atmosphere."
Kepler looks for planets that cross in front of their host stars, which creates a mini-eclipse and dims the star by a small but detectable amount. Such a transit lasts only hours and requires exact alignment of star and planet along our line of sight. Kepler will examine thousands of stars to find a few with transiting worlds.
Once they have found an alien Jupiter, astronomers can look for orbiting moons, or exomoons. A moon's gravity would tug on the planet and either speed or slow its transit, depending on whether the moon leads or trails the planet. The resulting transit duration variations would indicate the moon's existence.
Once a moon is found, the next obvious question would be: Does it have an atmosphere? If it does, those gases will absorb a fraction of the star's light during the transit, leaving a tiny, telltale fingerprint to the atmosphere's composition.
The signal is strongest for large worlds with hot, puffy atmospheres, but an Earth-sized moon could be studied if conditions are just right. For example, the separation of moon and planet needs to be large enough that we could catch just the moon in transit, while its planet is off to one side of the star.
Kaltenegger calculated what conditions are best for examining the atmospheres of alien moons. She found that alpha Centauri A, the system featured in Avatar, would be an excellent target.
"Alpha Centauri A is a bright, nearby star very similar to our Sun, so it gives us a strong signal" Kaltenegger explained. "You would only need a handful of transits to find water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane on an Earth-like moon such as Pandora."
"If the Avatar movie is right in its vision, we could characterize that moon with JWST in the near future," she added.
While alpha Centauri A offers tantalizing possibilities, small, dim, red dwarf stars are better targets in the hunt for habitable planets or moons. The habitable zone for a red dwarf is closer to the star, which increases the probability of a transit.
Astronomers have debated whether tidal locking could be a problem for red dwarfs. A planet close enough to be in the habitable zone would also be close enough for the star's gravity to slow it until one side always faces the star. (The same process keeps one side of the Moon always facing Earth.) One side of the planet then would be baked in constant sunlight, while the other side would freeze in constant darkness.
An exomoon in the habitable zone wouldn't face this dilemma. The moon would be tidally locked to its planet, not to the star, and therefore would have regular day-night cycles just like Earth. Its atmosphere would moderate temperatures, and plant life would have a source of energy moon-wide.
"Alien moons orbiting gas giant planets may be more likely to be habitable than tidally locked Earth-sized planets or super-Earths," said Kaltenegger. "We should certainly keep them in mind as we work toward the ultimate goal of finding alien life."Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.
For more information, contact:Lisa Kaltenegger
Lisa Kaltenegger | EurekAlert!
Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1
21.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Hochfrequenzphysik und Radartechnik FHR
Taming chaos: Calculating probability in complex systems
21.03.2018 | American Institute of Physics
In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.
Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...
Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.
They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...
A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...
For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.
In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...
Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...
19.03.2018 | Event News
16.03.2018 | Event News
13.03.2018 | Event News
21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences
21.03.2018 | Life Sciences