Moons 'could hold alien life like Pandora in Avatar'

 

Moons like the one depicted in the film Avatar may be among the most common places to find alien life, scientists believe.

Astronomers came to the conclusion after identifying up to 15 new planets orbiting the life-friendly "habitable zones" of stars.

All are giant gaseous worlds similar in size to Jupiter or Neptune.

While such planets would not themselves be suitable for Earth-like life, they could be circled by moons on which there are forests, oceans and living creatures.

Pandora, the fictional moon in Avatar, is just such a world.

So far only one of the 15 newly discovered objects has been confirmed as an exoplanet with 99.9% certainty. The rest still fall into the category of "candidate" planets while further evidence is collected.

The confirmed planet, known as PH2 b, orbits a sun-like star in the constellation Cygnus several hundred light years away.

Astronomer Dr Chris Lintott, from Oxford University, a member of the international team behind the discovery, said: "There's an obsession with finding Earth-like planets but what we are discovering with planets such as PH2 b is far stranger.

"Jupiter has several large water-rich moons. Imaging dragging that system into the comfortably warm region where the Earth is. If such a planet had Earth-size moons, we'd see not Europa and Callisto but worlds with rivers, lakes and all sorts of habitats: a surprising scenario that might just be common.

"It may be that the most common habitable worlds are moons around Jupiter and Neptune-size planets rather than rocky planets as in our own solar system."

Members of the public helped astronomers identify the candidate exoplanets by logging onto the planethunters.org website on their home computers. The Planet Hunters project invites "citizen scientists" to spot graph patterns signifying the tell-tale dip in brightness as planets pass in front of their parent stars.

Follow-up work with the Keck telescope in Hawaii provided the proof that PH2 b is almost certainly a genuine planet.

More than 40 volunteers are credited in a paper on the research published online by the Astrophysical Journal.

One, retired police office Roy Jackson, 71, from Birtley near Gateshead, said: "It is difficult to put into words, the pleasure, wonderment and perhaps even pride that I have in some small way been able to assist in the discovery of a planet."

Another, electronics engineer Mark Hadley from Faversham, said: "Now when people ask me what I achieved last year I can say I have helped discover a possible new planet around a distant star. How cool is that?"

Planet Hunters lead scientist Professor Debra Fisher, from Yale University in the US, said: "We are seeing the emergence of a new era in the Planet Hunters project where our volunteers seem to be at least as efficient as the computer algorithms at finding planets orbiting at habitable zone distances from the host stars.

"Now, the hunt is not just targeting any old exoplanet; volunteers are homing in on habitable worlds."

Before the latest finds, 19 other exoplanets had already been located in habitable zones. Also known as the "Goldilocks zone", this is the orbital path where temperatures are not too hot or cold but "just right" to permit liquid surface water.

Dr Ji Wang, another Planet Hunters scientist from Yale University, said: "We can speculate that PH2 b might have a rocky moon that would be suitable for life. I can't wait for the day when astronomers report detecting signs of life on other worlds instead of just locating potentially habitable environments. That could happen any day now."

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families