Distant moons could harbor extraterrestrial life, study reports

A new study shows that distant moons are likely a great place to search for life in outer space.
By Joseph Scalise | Feb 25, 2019
A group of international astronomers have uncovered over 100 giant exoplanets that could potentially have life-hosting moons.

Typically, researchers search for such moons around planets that appear to be more or less like Earth. That means the worlds are rocky and sit in their host star's habitable zone.

As Jupiter-like planets do not have such surfaces, it is common belief that they could not host life.However, the new study shows the moons of those massive bodies may be different.

"There are currently 175 known moons orbiting the eight planets in our solar system," said study co-author Stephen Kane, an associate professor of planetary astrophysics at the University of California, Riverside, in a statement. "While most of these moons orbit Saturn and Jupiter, which are outside the sun's habitable zone, that may not be the case in other solar systems. Including rocky exomoons in our search for life in space will greatly expand the places we can look."

To reach that conclusion, the team analyzed the database of NASA's Kepler space telescope. The scientists flagged 121 gas giants that seem to sit in habitable zones during their search in order to analyze them later on.

While the study did not show any moons, if any of the large worlds were to have satellites -- which they likely do based on the planets in our solar system -- the team believes they could be great places to host life. That is because lifeforms on the surface could tap energy coming directly from the host star.

The cataloging of the potential giants is the first step. Next, researchers plan to take a closer look for any moons.

"Our follow-up studies will help inform future telescope design so that we can detect these moons, study their properties, and look for signs of life," said lead author Michelle Hill, an undergraduate student at the University of Southern Queensland, according to Space.com

The new study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

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