Discovered Mustafar? Wasp 49B the volcanic Exomoon

From Star Wars to Reality: The Volcanic Exomoon of Wasp 49B

Video of the day October 10th 2020


Wasp 49-B

Before we get to this very special and unique kind of moon, we need to discuss the planet that it is on. Because we’ve known about the planet much more than we did about the moon itself. The planet is known as Wasp 49-B, with “Wasp 49” being a reference to a yellow dwarf star that the planet orbits.

NASA defines the planet as such:

WASP-49 b is a gas giant exoplanet that orbits a G-type star. Its mass is 0.37 Jupiters, it takes 2.8 days to complete one orbit of its star, and is 0.0379 AU from its star. Its discovery was announced in 2012.”

Just in that description we got some fascinating details that show just how similar, yet different, Wasp 49-B is from our own planets in our own solar system.

For example, many people like to say that Wasp 49-B is a “Jupiter-Like Planet”, which is true to an extent because it is a gas giant with a coloring that is similar to Jupiter’s. However, the mass of the planet and the distance from the sun are vastly different than our Jupiter.

In our solar system, Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun, and so its AU (astronomical unit, or distance from it to the sun) is MUCH higher. What’s more, the yearly orbit is well over a year, not 3 days.

Add to that, Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system, and it has the mass to match. Wasp 49- does not.

So given all of that, it’s not to say that the planet isn’t impressive, but there’s a reason that people are talking more about the newly discovered moon than the planet itself in many cases.

And if not already obvious, this most definitely is NOT a planet we can colonize. Especially since it’s about 550 light years away from us at present. Not that we’d want to go to the moon either as you’ll soon see…

The Hidden Moon

Despite the planet itself being known about for many years, the moon that orbits around Wasp 49-B was only discovered in 2019, and when astronomers were able to observe this “hidden moon”, they were quite fascinated to say the least. Because the moon wasn’t just a regular moon like we’ve all seen thousands of times. It was one that was very volcanic in nature:

“It would be a dangerous volcanic world with a molten surface of lava, a lunar version of close-in super-Earths like 55 Cancri e,” said Dr. Apurva Oza, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern. “The enormous tidal forces in such a system are the key to everything.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, the “tidal forces” is a reference to how certain planets and moons are “tidally locked” to their stars that they orbit around. Meaning that one half of the planet constantly faces the sun, while the other side doesn’t. Usually, this creates a dichotomy of effects, with one site being lava or always burning, and the other side being frozen over. But in this case, the tidal forces come from the planet the moon orbits, and it would seem that nearly the whole moon is this volcanic-like entity.

“The energy released by the tides to the planet and its moon keeps the moon’s orbit stable, simultaneously heating it up and making it volcanically active.”

The reason for the detection of this moon was actually due to deposits of sodium. When certain volcanic eruptions happen, certain gasses and particles are sent high up into the atmosphere, including sodium. It was the sodium that they detected near Wasp 49-B, and when they did, they realized that it was very similar to another volcanic moon. One that is very close to where we live, IO, the moon that orbits Jupiter.

“Observations of Jupiter and Io in our Solar System, along with mass loss calculations, show that an exo-Io could be a very plausible source of sodium at WASP-49b. The sodium is right where it should be.”

Io is arguably one of the more famous moons in our solar system, and if you didn’t know how volcanically active it was, here is a breakdown of just how active it is. Try and notice the similarities between Io and the moon above Wasp 49-B.

“With over 400 active volcanoes, Io is the most geologically active object in the Solar System. This extreme geologic activity is the result of tidal heating from friction generated within Io’s interior as it is pulled between Jupiter and the other Galilean satellites—Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Several volcanoes produce plumes of sulfur and sulfur dioxide that climb as high as 500 km (300 mi) above the surface.”

That’s a lot of similarities. However, there is one thing you should know, the scientists who are watching this moon very close have noted that when it comes to exomoons like this one, their volcanic activities are cool, they do have a big detrimental impact on the entity itself:

“While the current wave of research is going towards habitability and biosignatures, our signature is a signature of destruction. A few of these worlds could be destroyed in a few billion years due to the extreme mass loss. The exciting part is that we can monitor these destructive processes in real time, like fireworks.”

Fireworks indeed, and could you imagine what an exomoon like this would look like when it explodes?

Now, if this talk of “volcanic moons” has you thinking that you’ve seen or heard of something like this before, you’re not wrong. In fact, a very similar place was shown in a galaxy far far away…


Yep, we’re going Star Wars on you!

“Mustafar was a small volcanic planet located in the Mustafar system, situated between two gas giants in the Outer Rim Territories that was aligned with the Confederacy of Independent Systems during the Clone Wars and later taken over by the Galactic Empire after the Techno Union was nationalized at the conclusion of the conflict.” – Wookiepedia

Politics aside, Mustafar was one of the most important locations in all of Star Wars during the movie “Revenge of the Sith”, as it was the place where Darth Vader was truly born. Anakin Skywalker was sent by the Emperor to kill the leaders of the Separatists faction who had been hiding on the planet…at the orders of the Emperor himself.

After Anakin did so, he was confronted by both his wife Padme Amadala, and his former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The battle that would happen on that planet would change the course of history. As Padme was seemingly killed by Anakin in anger, and Obi-Wan dueled Anakin in a fight that took them all over the volcanic planet. Ending with a battle on the high ground that had Obi-Wan cutting off Anakin’s arms and legs, and watching him burn due to the fiery lava that they were next to.

Obi-Wan couldn’t finish him though, and so he left Anakin to suffer and die. Unfortunately for him, the Emperor came in just in time and got him to a medical facility where he was transformed into the helmeted and cloaked Darth Vader that pop culture loves to reference and dress up as.

Vader’s Base

Though technically a more recent addition to the Star Wars mythos, it was later revealed via movies like Rogue One and other Star Wars properties that Mustafar soon became home to a secret base used by Darth Vader. Known as Fortress Vader.

This is appropriate as it was the place where he truly became the Dark Lord of the Sith that we know him as. As well as the place of his greatest “failure” in regards to him “killing” his wife Padme. And because of that, he no doubt uses those feelings of anger to help drive up his power level, as the Sith use emotion to make themselves more and more dangerous.

The base has not been too heavily explored, but what we do know shows that Vader uses it as a place of both meditation and healing. Multiple times showing him in a medical chamber of sorts to try and mend his burnt and wounded body before donning his armor once more.

It’s also been shown as a meeting place that Vader can consult with other members of the Empire. Like Director Krennic from Rogue One.

All in all, it’s a suiting place to have a base, as few knew the importance of Mustafar in regards to what it housed in the prequels, and only Obi-Wan knows about what happened between him and Anakin there. So with it being such a secret, it would make perfect sense that a base would be put there without fear of it being attacked.

Artist's concept shows hot Jupiter WASP-121source: Nasa

The Singular Importance Of The Moon Of Wasp 49-B

Ok, shall we get back to the science for a bit? I love talking about Star Wars just as much as the next guy, but we should probably focus for a little bit here.

There are many different reasons that the moon that orbits Wasp 49-B is so important to the scientific community. First and foremost, as mentioned before, it resembles Io near Jupiter. But, as many have pointed out, this is actually a more advanced version of Io in terms of how the moon looks and its volcanic activity.

What’s more, this is the first Io-like moon we’ve found outside of our own solar system, and it was yet again found near a gas giant. Which could mean a pattern in more like this are found in the universe. Using these two as examples, there are some planets that have been found that could potentially have something like these moons orbiting them. It’s just hard to tell at the present time.

And let’s not forget, this exomoon was hidden from view for years after we found Wasp 49-B. Due in part to the 550 light year difference and our ability to see the planet for long periods of time. So, by that token, there are potentially plenty of other exomoons like this out there, and they could be as virulent as this moon, or more docile like Io, the true just isn’t out there yet.

Could These Moons Be Useful?

I’m sure this is a thought crossing your mind. Sure, scientifically speaking the idea of volcanic moons that explode and yet don’t seem to cause too much physical damage to the entire entity of the moon is interesting. And visually, it must look really cool. But let’s be honest here, is it actually…useful? I mean, for the first part, it’s VERY far way, the Wasp 49-B moon that is, and even Io is technically out of reach outside of satellites and probes.

So given all of that, why do we care so much about these moons? Is there anything that can actually be useful from them?

Well, yes, there is. In the Star Wars universe (yeah…we’re going back!) the Techno Union used the molten and volcanic planet of Mustafar to harvest materials that they used to build their robot minions. And technically speaking, we could do the same.

Harvest the materials…not build robot minions.

Because while it may not seem like it from afar, volcanoes of all shapes and sizes have all kinds of valuable materials. We already outlined one of them in sodium that is shot up into the air. But that’s only scratching the surface of what else they can offer. Volcanic soil is also some of the most fertile soil out there at times. Which you might remember being said in the film, The Incredibles.

And further study could potentially give us information on moons, volcanoes and even planets that we can use to expand our knowledge on certain subjects. So sure, on the surface, it may not seem like we’re doing anything useful with this information outside of oooing and ahhhhing at the “cool moon”. But science only starts out that way, then they dive deeper and reveal things that you didn’t expect.

The Range Of The Universe

More than anything else though, what the moon orbiting Wasp 49-B really shows us is that the universe still has some mysteries for us to figure out. As well as showing us just how vast and different the universe is in terms of looks, texture, and activity.

I mean, think about it, when you picture a moon, you think likely of the moon surrounding the Earth. To the extent that you might likely think that all moons are like this. And yet we know that’s not true. Saturn has a moon called Titan that has lakes full of methane and other gasses. Making it not only rather unique, but a place that humanity could potentially colonize.

There are also moons that are so big that they could be considered planets! And now, we have not one but two moons that are volcanic in different ways. Including their intensity. So given all of that, we clearly don’t know the full range of moons in our universe. There could be one out there right now that is unlike any moon we’ve ever seen before, and have features that we likely never thought possible for a moon.

That’s honestly why scientists continue to study the universe, because we KNOW that we don’t know everything that is out there. But we want to, we want to badly, and thus the work continues.

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