Exomoons in the Hunt for Extraterrestrial Life: NASA Is Looking for a Real-Life Pandora

Friday, 26 February 2016 - 10:17AM
NASA
Astronomy
Alien Life
Friday, 26 February 2016 - 10:17AM
Exomoons in the Hunt for Extraterrestrial Life: NASA Is Looking for a Real-Life Pandora
In the last few decades, astronomers have discovered over 1,000 exoplanets, but still haven't found any exomoons. Now, NASA is kicking the search for the first exomoon into gear, as a moon outside of our solar system may be the key to finding extraterrestrial life.


An artist's depiction of a real-life exomoon, courtesy of NASA


We know that moons are key to a planet's habitability, if only because we probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for our Moon's influence on Earth. The Moon's strong gravitational serves as a stabilizing force for the Earth, as it ensures the Earth's relatively static tilt. The Earth's tilt, or its angle in relation to the Sun, has only varied by a couple of degrees in millions of years, which affords Earth consistent and mild seasons. This stability allows for advanced life forms to evolve, as a planet with an unstable climate would force species to adapt so quickly. Mars, for example, is theoretically habitable, but since it doesn't have a moon with a strong gravitational force, its tilt, and therefore its climate, has varied wildly, which has greatly reduced any chances of finding advanced life forms.

The Moon may have even contributed to the origin of life on Earth; its gravitational pull causes the tides, which billions of years ago caused varying concentrations of salt on our rocky shores. This, in turn, may have given rise to the chemical processes that produced the first DNA-like molecules. As a result of the Moon's significant influence on the existence of life on Earth, astronomers believe that finding a planet's moon is almost as crucial as finding the planet itself, as an Earth twin may not be habitable if it doesn't have a moon with a strong gravitational force.

But NASA isn't only eager to find exomoons as a result of their influence on potentially habitable exoplanets; astronomers now believe that exomoons may be habitable environments themselves. In recent years, moons in our own solar system have become some of the most viable candidates for life; Jupiter's moon Europa is thought to have a liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface, while Saturn's moon Titan may be able to support life very different from life on Earth in its anoxic methane lakes. 

As a result, NASA is placing more priority on finding the first exomoon, in the hopes of discovering a real-life Pandora or Endor. Surveying all of the discovered exoplanets would take a prohibitive amount of time for human beings or normal computers, so they are harnessing the power of a state-of-the-art supercomputer called Pleiades, which performs over 3 quadrillion calculations per second. Using this system, a team of researchers will spend the next two years simulating billions of star-planet-moon configurations and comparing it to actual Kepler data until they find a plausible match.

And if the alien life we find turns out to be giant teddy bears, so much the better:



Via Space.com.

Science
Space
NASA
Astronomy
Alien Life

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