Astronomers Discover First Ever Exomoon Outside Our Solar System--Maybe

First Posted: Apr 14, 2014 07:24 AM EDT

Astronomers may have made an important discovery--or not. They've found a possible exomoon, which is a moon orbiting a planet beyond our sun. The findings could lend insight into other planets and their orbiting bodies.

In order to spot the new exomoon, the researchers used telescopes in New Zealand and Tasmania. More specifically, they employed a technique called gravitational microlensing, which takes advantage of chance alignments between stars. When a foreground stars passes between Earth and a more distant star, the closer star can actually act like a magnifying glass to brighten the light of the more distant one. Sometimes, though, the further star can actually be a planet.

While the researchers spotted evidence of an exomoon, though, there's no way to actually confirm its presence. Yet it does show that it might be possible to find exomoons in the future.

"We won't have a chance to observe the exomoon candidate again," said David Bennett, one of the researchers, in a news release. "But we can expect more unexpected finds like this."

In this case, the researchers spotted a pair that could either be a small, faint star circled by a planet about 18 times the mass of Earth, or a planet more massive than Jupiter coupled with a moon weighing less than Earth. If the latter, then the scientists may have just found their first exomoon.

"One possibility is for the lensing system to be a planet and its moon, which if true, would be a spectacular discover of a totally new type of system," said Wes Traub, chief scientist at NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program office, who was not involved in the study, in a news release. "The researchers' models point to the moon solution, but if you simply look at which scenario is more likely in nature, the star solution wins."

Currently, the researchers are still combing the universe for more evidence of exoplanets and their moons. The most recent findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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