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Friday March 30th 2012

Crowd-Funding the Exomoon Hunt

I’ve been trying to figure out why exomoons — moons around planets that orbit stars other than our own — have such a fascination for me. On the purely scientific level, the sheer amazement of discovery probably carries the day, meaning that I grew up in a time long before we had confirmation of any exoplanets, and now we’re talking about getting data on their moons. But there’s also that sense of the exotic, for we can wonder whether gas giants in the habitable zone, which may be more plentiful than we realize, might have life on their own rocky moons.

David Kipping (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) has been a key player in the exomoon hunt for some time now (search under his name in the archives here and you’ll retrieve articles going back for years). David is now working with a ‘crowd-funding’ source called Petridish.org to fund a new mini-supercomputer that will go to work on the Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project. The idea behind HEK is to use Kepler data to look for transit timing variations (TTV) and transit duration variations (TDV), perturbations in the motion of the host planet that should flag the presence of a large exomoon. The detection of exomoons down to 0.2 Earth masses seems feasible with these methods, as Kipping has determined in earlier work.

Help us find the first exomoon is getting plenty of attention. The beauty of Petridish.org is that it lets individuals become a part of science one project at a time, playing an important role in the kind of things that get funded. Have a look at the site and you’ll see a wide range of projects ranging from a study of wolf populations on Isle Royale National Park (Lake Superior) to the collection of rock samples in Antarctica. Each project has a short video explaining the work at hand and the funding goal, along with the rewards for donors, which could be souvenirs of some kind or, for large donations, having the project named after the donor. Needless to say, backers are also on the fast track for updates on the research.

With over 1000 new planetary candidates just released by Kepler, the exomoon possibilities are getting more and more interesting, but Kipping points out that hunting for a single moon takes about 6 years of computer time:

Searching for moons requires the most sophisticated statistical techniques, many of which we have borrowed from cosmologists studying the Big Bang and dark energy. The systems we model have complex dynamical interactions and produce strange, asymmetric light curves requiring a lot of computer power. But we are *almost* there. A mini-supercomputer would have a huge impact on our search, so please do consider supporting us!

The fund-raising project still has eleven days to run and is making excellent progress. But faster computer processors would bump up the speed for HEK’s work, and with almost two weeks to go, Kipping is hoping the project can not only acquire the needed machine but upgrade it to state-of-the-art standards. Have a look at what HEK is doing with crowd-funding, and be aware, too, of Kipping’s paper “The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK): I. Description of a New Observational Project,” available on the arXiv site and now accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. For more on HEK, see the Centauri Dreams post New Exomoon Project Will Use Kepler Data.


This article was originally posted on Centauri Dreams