Radio waves give new hope in search for life

By ANDREW WALTER
@TheEtCetera

Although currently unsuccessful, a team of graduate students hopes to use new methods to detect exomoons and pave the way for a new field of science.

Eastfield recently held its first STEMinar of the semester with a presentation by University of Texas at Arlington physics doctoral candidate Marialis Rosario-Franco about using radio signals to detect the existence of exomoons.

Extrasolar planets and extrasolar moons, also called exoplanets and exomoons, are defined as planets and moons that inhabit solar systems besides our own.

Rosario-Franco discussed the importance of a new exomoon detection method and how finding exomoons could provide critical information for us here on Earth.

The premise of their method works like this: using a powerful radio telescope, they search for a specific radio signal in a region of space and use a formula to determine if an exomoon is present or not.

If Rosario-Franco and her team manage to find an exomoon, the scientific community would be one step closer to understanding how different star systems formed, if life exists elsewhere in the universe and how moons can affect their host planet.

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Rosario-Franco’s research would currently be categorized as exoplanetary science. If she manages to find an exomoon, or extrasolar moon, then a new field of study would be created for surveying moons in other star systems.

Rosario-Franco believes that because our moon helps to protect us against asteroids, keeps our climate stable and controls the tides, other moons in other star systems could potentially do the same for the exoplanet that they orbit. Conditions such as these could indicate a planet capable of supporting life.

“Studying and understanding the formation, the dynamics, and the existence of exomoons will provide insight for us to know whether those exoplanets are habitable or not,” she said.

While there are other pre-existing detection methods, the one Rosario-Franco discussed appears to be the most promising. The detection methods currently in use have inherent limitations, therefore new methods of detection are constantly being sought.

Rosario-Franco’s doctoral studies center largely on a new method of detection developed by a former fellow graduate student and exoplanet study group member, Dr. Joaquin P. Noyola.

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The significance of his detection method is that should it work in detecting an exomoon, by the very nature of the mathematical equations involved, it would provide the mass or radius of the exoplanet and the exomoon. These measurements usually must be established by other methods, but are required for confirmation of the existence of the exoplanet or exomoon.

“Bureaucracy in the astronomical community dictates that a planet cannot be confirmed until you obtain its mass or radius, and we have a direct equation that will give you the mass and the radius immediately,” Rosario-Franco said.

Physics professor Dr. Saeed Ahmad was intrigued by Rosario-Franco’s research and was able to elaborate on some of the finer details of the detection method.

“Solar radiation can break atoms and they become ions, charged particles,” he said. “An ionosphere is a sphere of particles around a planet. In Jupiter’s ionosphere, those particles interact with the magnetic field of Jupiter, and this interaction produces radio waves that we can detect. The detection method that the speaker described involves using a set of equations that can provide the mass and radius of an exoplanet and its exomoon,” Architecture major Omar Salinas said that he was fascinated at the possibilities in scientific advancements that the discovery of exomoons would present.

“I found it very interesting that we have the instrumentation to detect exomoons, but have no definite proof of their existence,” he said. “We are capable of advancing our technology to such a degree and still have room for improvements.”

Rosario-Franco and her team will continue their search for exomoons by checking different regions of space in the near future.

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