September 2, 2009--A Jupiterlike planet peeks through the clouds above a so-called exomoon in an artist's rendering. It's possible that NASA's planet-hunting satellite Kepler, launched earlier this year, will find habitable moons as well as Earthlike worlds, astronomers announced this week.
Kepler looks for planets outside our solar system by searching for periodic dips in the brightnesses of distant stars, thought to be due to orbiting planets crossing the faces of the stars.
Now a new model suggests that the probe could also look for changes in the speed and position of a transiting planet caused by the gravitational tug of a moon. Knowing the host planet's size, mass, and distance from its star would then reveal whether the moon might be able to support liquid water, and thus life.
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Artist’s impression of a hypothetical exomoon in orbit around a Saturn-like planet in another planetary system. (Click image to enlarge)