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Where Are The Exomoons? UT Arlington Researchers Aim To Track Them Down With Radio Waves

After scientists discovered the nine planets in our solar system, and then re categorized Pluto as a dwarf planet… they moved on to finding planets in other parts of the galaxy. So far, they’ve discovered around 2,000 so-called exoplanets. Their luck hasn’t been as good with exomoons. But there’s a new research technique scientists at UT Arlington hope can help locate moons many light years away.

True, both Star Wars and Avatar feature civilizations on moons light years away, but scientists in the real world have so far been unable to gather concrete evidence showing such “exomoons” actually exist.

While NASA’s Kepler telescope has helped find exoplanets, UT Arlington’s Zdzislaw Musielak doesn’t think it will the telescope is powerful enough to see moons. Which is why he’s come up with another way…measuring radio waves with a radio telescope.

We use radio waves for all sorts of things, from putting on TV in our homes, to looking for alien civilizations.

But this is the first time scientists are considering using radio waves to locate moons.

In the Aug. 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, Musielak — along with co-authors Joaquin Noyola and Suman Satyal — explain their idea to look for radio emissions similar to those that occur in our own solar system – between Jupiter and its closest moon Io.

“If you didn’t see [Jupiter’s moon] Io,” he says, “you could conclude Io is there because of the radio emissions. So this is the whole idea how to extrapolate this from the solar system to the outer systems.”

Musielak says if they can locate these telltale radio emissions, they’ll have evidence of exomoons.

“And the, maybe there’s an exomoon which is bigger than our moon, big enough to have an atmosphere, and as a result, civilization could develop there,” Musielak says.

The whole thing might sounds far-fetched, but Harvard astrophysicist DavidKipping says the method has potential.

The Exomoon Race

Kipping is competing in the race to locate exomoons, but he likes the idea, saying “It’s very inventive.”

“I think a bit of competition is a healthy thing, and ultimately the mores tricks in our toolbox we have to discover exomoons, the sooner we will force them out of hiding,” Kipping says.

The biggest obstacle to detecting exomoons with radio waves, Kipping says, is reach. UT Arlington scientists estimate their technique will only be sensitive for planets and stars within about 15 light years from the earth.

“That sounds huge number,” Kipping admits, “but the galaxy is 100,000 light years across, but 15 light years is quite close. There’s only fifty stars that close to us. So only the closest stars and planets we could go about and use this technique.”

The UT Arlington researchers have submitted a request to test their technique using the largest radio telescope in the world. It’s located far from North Texas – in The Netherlands – but it could get them closer to exomoons.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.