Are we alone in this universe? This timeless question has motivated everything from scientific discussion to movies about extraterrestrial life. The discovery of the first extra solar planet in 1991 shocked the astrophysics community. Since then, researchers have found over 500 new planets, birthing a whole new arena of planetary research.
We want to take this field one step further and study the existence of exomoons, or moons outside of the solar system. Not only will the study of exomoons enhance our understanding of planets and solar systems, but because moons are potentially habitable, our project would advance the search for extraterrestrial life.
Our knowledge of the universe is still very limited. Everything the scientific community currently knows about how planets, stars and solar systems form is a result of studying planets outside of the solar system. This would be the first study ever done on exomoons, and by adding this new information, we could more closely and thoroughly study the universe and potentially open up a new subfield of planetary research. Ultimately, it would allow us to construct far more accurate models for exactly how solar systems form and answer the equally age-old question of how we all came into existence.
In order to study exomoons, we will need to use Kepler telescope data. The Kepler looks at stars and takes photos every hour, searching for changes in the brightness of each star. The dimming of a star correlates with the passing of a planet or moon in front of it. Further, because planets and moons orbit around each other, the gravitational tug of the moon causes the planets to wobble. We can detect that wobbling motion and use those clues to know that a moon is there.
To analyze all of the Kepler data, we need a small supercomputer working 24 hours a day to sift through the data. This supercomputer, like most technology, comes at a high cost, so we would be unable to make strides in this research arena without the private support of $10,000.
David Kipping completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, England, where he majored in physics. His graduate studies were spent at University College London (UCL) working on the theory of transiting extrasolar planets. It was there that he became first interested in the idea of detecting moons outside of our solar system. As well as constituting the bulk of his PhD thesis, he wrote several papers on the subject of exomoons. Specifically, he devised a new method to detect such objects. The new method was based around looking for the gravitational influence of the moon affecting the orbital velocity of a planet host. The work elevated exomoons from a merely theoretical musing to a potentially feasible observational object.
After completing his PhD, Kipping moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to work at Harvard University as a postdoctoral researcher. Soon after, he began a NASA Carl Sagan fellowship for exoplanetary research. The fellowship is specifically to conduct the first ever search for exomoons. This led to Kipping’s project, "The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler" (HEK), which has since recruited several brilliant scientists as collaborators and is pushing ever closer to the first detection
Image credit Dan Durda. Video introduction and background music from www.TimeScapes.org
This is my final post for this project and let me take this chance to extend my deepest thanks and gratitude to all of those who donated to our project. This is scientific research enabled by YOU, enabled by people from all walks of life who evidently, to quote the great Carl Sagan, 'believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos'.
It has been a joy to see not just our own project funded but how well the other projects on Petridish have been doing. It is amazing to think we could be witnessing the birth of a whole new way to fund science. I have particularly enjoyed the interactions with many of you in the comments below and thank you for your time, interest and thoughtful questions.
All of us in the HEK team are greatly humbled that you have chosen to support our research. The universe is a wonderful, infinite mystery and in the next few years our project, directly enabled by you, should shed light on one of those many stirring questions about this place in which we live - are large, potentially habitable, moons frequently scattered across the cosmos? The answer may tell us just how special our little terraqeuous globe is, and how such worlds come into being.
With deepest thanks,
Today we reached our milestone of $10,000!! It is amazing that we reached this with 13 days to spare. Let me express my deepest thanks and gratitude to all of you who donated to this project. Also thank-you to those who shared the link around on the twitto-sphere!
The $10k goal means we can acquire the 64-core machine we originally ear-marked for the project. We are currently looking at 2.1GHz processors for the machine, which is the lowest speed CPUs available for our setup. However, if we reach an extra $700 we can bump up to 2.2Ghz, for $1200 we go to 2.3 Ghz and for $2200 we reach 2.6Ghz. That would be a big speed-up for our hunt!
So, please do keep donating and sharing to friends in the remaining 13 days and thanks again for getting us to $10k!
First of all, huge thank-you to everyone who has pledged to our project so far. I have been moved by your comments of support and personal donations. It is so engaging to talk about our project with all of you in the comments, which is something scientists are too often sheltered from. Please do keep asking these great questions - I never get bored of talking about exomoons!
Secondly, the HEK project has received some good news yesterday. Our first paper, "The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK): I. Description of a New Observational Project", has now been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. Please have a look at the paper if you have any technical questions about the search: http://arxiv.org/abs/1201.0752
We are now at 60% of the way to being fully funded but it looks like this will go down to the wire. So please keep spreading the word and sharing the website with your friends to help us reach our goal!
Just a few days ago, the incredible Kepler Team released over 1000 new planetary candidates in a paper led by Dr. Natalie Batalha. The HEK team have been eagerly anticipating this list for quite some time since it essentially doubles the number of targets for our moon hunt! In reality, it is even better than a factor of two because the longer Kepler observes, the more long-period planets it is finding. Long-period planets are what we really want for the exomoon search. Think about Mercury and Venus - both of these planets orbit closer to the Sun than the Earth and neither have a moon. Once you go out to the distance of the Earth though, every single Solar System planet has at least one moon (this is a pretty good reason to extend the Kepler Mission guys!).
The last few days then have been rather busy for us as we are sifting through the new candidates trying to identify any low-hanging fruit. We now have over 2300 (!) planetary candidates to choose from - surely there are dozens of moons in there! As ever, the computer constraints are really pressing us down though. To search a single system for a moon takes about 6 years of computer time, for a modern desktop machine... 6 years!! Why is it so long?
Searching for moons requires the most sophisticated statistical techniques, many of which we have borrowed from cosmologists studying the Big Bang and dark energy. The systems we model have complex dynamical interactions and produce strange, asymmetric light curves requiring a lot of computer power. But we are *almost* there. A mini-supercomputer would have a huge impact on our search, so please do consider supporting us!