Artist’s ren­di­tion of an Earth-like “exo­moon” orbit­ing a gas giant plan­et in a star’s hab­it­able zone.

NASA/J­PL-Cal­Tech

Astronomers have tak­en a close look at a Sat­urn-sized exo­plan­et and found it may have tem­per­a­tures sim­i­lar to Earth. While it’s not like­ly the near­by exo­plan­et is hab­it­able, there’s a chance it might have per­fect­ly liv­able exo­moons.

The exoplanet,“HIP41378 f”, is the out­er­most of six observ­able worlds orbit­ing the star HIP41378, which is an F‑type star rough­ly ten per­cent hot­ter than our own sun. Sit­u­at­ed some 336 light years from Earth, it’s just around the cor­ner from us, galac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, but still far enough that we’re not get­ting there any­time soon with­out a warp dri­ve or some oth­er new tech­nol­o­gy ripped from the pages of sci­ence fic­tion. 

A new paper by an inter­na­tion­al team of astronomers details the sci­en­tif­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sent­ed by this rare gas giant exo­plan­et orbit­ing in the hab­it­able zone. Because larg­er plan­ets are eas­i­er to study with tele­scopes, HIP41378 f could be help­ful to sci­en­tists look­ing to study the atmos­pheres of dis­tant worlds and also test glob­al cli­mate mod­els used for Earth and plan­ets in our solar sys­tem. 

“This plan­et is like­ly com­posed of a large atmos­phere dom­i­nat­ed by hydro­gen and heli­um and a very small core,” reads a draft of the paper, which has been sub­mit­ted to Nature Astron­o­my but has not yet been peer-reviewed. “Such a low-den­si­ty plan­et… is not pre­dict­ed by the cur­rent for­ma­tion and evo­lu­tion mod­els of exo­plan­ets and it will be a chal­lenge for such mod­els to explain its his­to­ry.”

Best places in space to search for alien life 26 Pho­tos

It is, with cur­rent mod­els, a bizarre world. How­ev­er, the astronomers write it could be the pres­ence of rings around the plan­et which make it appear larg­er than it actu­al­ly is, giv­ing it a low­er den­si­ty mea­sure­ment than expect­ed.

“Anoth­er expla­na­tion is that HIP41378 f is a “super-puff” plan­et with an extend­ed, out­flow­ing atmos­phere,” they note. 

Super-puff or not, the team argue the world will be a prime tar­get for next gen­er­a­tion tele­scopes like NASA’s upcom­ing James Webb Space Tele­scope or the Euro­pean PLATO mis­sion to check out. 

“Although this large, gaseous plan­et is not like­ly to be hab­it­able, it might host hab­it­able exo­moons… (It is) one of the best plan­ets to search for hab­it­able exo­moons.”

At this point exo­moons are still hypo­thet­i­cal. Astronomers think they may have spot­ted a few, but those obser­va­tions have yet to be ful­ly con­firmed. As we now believe there to be bil­lions or tril­lions of plan­ets in the uni­verse it seems rea­son­able to think a num­ber of them have their own satel­lites. 

Now we have anoth­er place to move the top of the list of worlds to check for moons wor­thy of a 23rd or 24th cen­tu­ry vaca­tion.

A 23rd-cen­tu­ry tourist guide to the galaxy 17 Pho­tos Space Noti­fi­ca­tion on Noti­fi­ca­tion off Sci-Tech

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