Distant Moons May Harbor Life

An artist’s illustration of a potentially habitable exomoon orbiting a giant planet in a distant solar system.
(Image: NASA GSFC: Jay Friedlander and Britt Griswold)
An artist’s illustration of a potentially habitable exomoon orbiting a giant planet in a distant solar system. (Image: NASA GSFC: Jay Friedlander and Britt Griswold)

We’ve all heard about the search for life on other planets, but what about looking on other moons? UCR researchers have identified 121 giant planets that may have habitable moons.

In a paper forthcoming in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Southern Queensland have identified more than 100 giant planets that potentially host moons capable of supporting life.

Their work will guide the design of future telescopes that can detect these potential moons and look for tell-tale signs of life, called biosignatures, in their atmospheres. Since the 2009 launch of NASA’s Kepler telescope, scientists have identified thousands of planets outside our solar system, which are called exoplanets.

Scientists have speculated that exomoons might provide a favorable environment for life. (Image: NASA GSFC: Jay Friedlander and Britt Griswold)

Scientists have speculated that exomoons might provide a favorable environment for life. (Image: NASA GSFC: Jay Friedlander and Britt Griswold)

A primary goal of the Kepler mission is to identify planets that are in the habitable zones of their stars, meaning it’s neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water — and potentially life — to exist. Terrestrial (rocky) planets are prime targets in the quest to find life because some of them might be geologically and atmospherically similar to Earth. Another place to look is the many gas giants identified during the Kepler mission.

While not a candidate for life themselves, Jupiter-like planets in the habitable zone may harbor rocky moons, called exomoons, that could sustain life. Stephen Kane, an associate professor of planetary astrophysics and a member of the UCR’s Alternative Earths Astrobiology Center, said:

The researchers identified 121 giant planets that have orbits within the habitable zones of their stars. At more than three times the radii of the Earth, these gaseous planets are less common than terrestrial planets, but each is expected to host several large moons.

Scientists have speculated that exomoons might provide a favorable environment for life, perhaps even better than Earth. That’s because they receive energy not only from their star, but also from radiation reflected from their planet. Until now, no exomoons have been confirmed. Michelle Hill, an undergraduate student at the University of Southern Queensland who is working with Kane and will join UCR’s graduate program in the fall, said:

The title of the paper is “Exploring Kepler Giant Planets in the Habitable Zone.” In addition to Hill, who is the is lead author, and Kane, other contributors are: Eduardo Seperuelo Duarte from Instituto Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; Ravi K. Kopparapu from the NASA Goddard Flight Center in Maryland; Dawn M. Gelino from the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech; and Robert A. Wittenmyer from University of Southern Queensland.

Provided by: University of California – Riverside [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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