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Boffins grudgingly admit they may have found an exomoon

Social media speculation forced their hand, hence the pre-press paper explaining their interest

By Richard Chirgwin, 31 Jul 2017

After Twitter-leaks, a trio of exoplanet-hunters have decided to go public with observations they reckoned weren't quite up to broadcast-quality but which is rather significant: the first possible detection of a moon orbiting an exoplanet.

It's hard enough to reliably spot exoplanets given that we do so by observing tiny flickerings in a star. The flickers made by moons are smaller still.

The candidate moon-hosting-exoplanet that Columbia University's Alex Teachey and David Kipping and citizen scientist Allan Schmitt have in mind is Kepler-1625b I, and as they write in the abstract of this paper at arXiv, it's scheduled for Hubble Space Telescope observations.

As Science Magazine reports, the team were hoping to hold back their findings until after they'd taken a look with Hubble, but their request for Hubble time “rocketed around social media”.

The problem is that Kipping's specialty is exomoons, so having his name associated with a Hubble request was a pretty broad hint that he had his eye on something.

Just how far social media ran ahead of the boffins' intentions is revealed in this remark: “we stress that the low Bayes factor of just 2 in this region means it should be treated as no more than a hint at this time”.

However, as Teachey writes for Scientific American, keeping their heads down might have been worse: “we're not just trying to save ourselves from embarrassment; the announcement and subsequent retraction of potentially ground-breaking results has the effect of eroding public trust in science over time, and we are chiefly concerned with not contributing to that problem.”

He continues: “we worried that getting the public excited about this object before we really know much of anything for sure is just bad for science”.

So: we'll have to wait some time yet before the trio get their Hubble time and decide whether or not they've found an exomoon.

Kepler-1625b, by the way, is around 4,000 light-years distant, a gas giant exoplanet of the star Kepler-1625. ®

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