Search For Life Turns To Exomoons As NASA Supercomputer Joins The Hunt

Justin Streight

Moons have big potential in the search for life and NASA's Kepler telescope intends to find any potentially habitable exomoons -- or moons outside our solar system. There's just one problem, finding those little celestial bodies is very difficult. To compensate, NASA is bringing in its Pleiades supercomputer to sort through the data from Kepler. The new addition may mean some exciting discoveries are on the way.

The idea of life on an exomoon is nothing new for fans of Star Wars -- although not everyone enjoyed the forest moon of Endor with its population of teddy-bear-like Ewoks.

Even within our solar system, Jupiter's moon of Europa, a world covered with a thick layer of ice, could harbor life in a liquid ocean beneath the surface. Saturn's moon, Titan, might also have the potential for life, albeit a very different kind of life. Titan sports lakes, rivers and rain of liquid methane, which could theoretically support life in the same way liquid water does on Earth.

Given the immense potential of these little worlds, it seems only natural that the Kepler telescope, with its mission to find exoplanets, should look for exomoons too.

The problem is that finding exoplanets is difficult enough, finding moons is nearly impossible. That's where the Pleiades supercomputer comes in.

According to a NASA statement, David Kipping at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has devised a computational method for finding the small celestial bodies using Kepler's data and the Pleiades supercomputer. His approach takes 5.2 million processor hours on the supercomputer to use known models for star-planet-moon configurations and compare them with Kepler's data. If they find a perfect match, then they've got an exomoon, theoretically.

The Kepler telescope has already revealed about 400 exomoon candidates. Kipping and his team have gone through 56 and will take another 50,000 hours in processing time to complete the rest.

Once finished, NASA will finally have a decent idea about the occurrence rates for moons in the galaxy. Still, scientists may have already found the first exomoon using a different method. The potential celestial body orbits around J1407b, otherwise known as the Super-Saturn.

As previously reported by the Inquisitr, the Super Saturn has rings of ice and rock like our own Saturn, but those rings are 200 times the size of Saturn's and contain enough material to make an entire Earth.

Gaps between the rings reveal something else.

Scientific American reports that one of the gaps is about 4 million kilometers. That massive hole could have been created with a moon orbiting the ring system and using its gravity to pick up all the little bits of material. Although that idea is still just a theory. At 420 light years away, its quite difficult to see those minor details.

In the meantime, NASA's Kepler telescope keeps searching the vast void for worlds that could potentially have life, as search that may have just gotten more interesting.

[Image Credit: NASA]