Detecting extrasolar moons akin to Solar System satellites with an Orbital Sampling Effect
Despite years of high accuracy observations, none of the available theoretical techniques has yet allowed the confirmation of a moon beyond the Solar System. Methods are currently limited to masses about an order of magnitude higher than the mass of any moon in the Solar System. I here present a new method sensitive to exomoons similar to the known moons. Due to the projection of transiting exomoon orbits onto the celestial plane, satellites appear more often at larger separations from their planet. After about a dozen randomly sampled observations, a photometric orbital sampling effect (OSE) starts to appear in the phase-folded transit light curve, indicative of the moons' radii and planetary distances. Two additional outcomes of the OSE emerge in the planet's transit timing variations (TTV-OSE) and transit duration variations (TDV-OSE), both of which permit measurements of a moon's mass. The OSE is the first effect that permits characterization of multi-satellite systems. I derive and apply analytical OSE descriptions to simulated transit observations of the Kepler space telescope assuming white noise only. Moons as small as Ganymede may be detectable in the available data, with M stars being their most promising hosts. Exomoons with the 10-fold mass of Ganymede and a similar composition (about 0.86 Earth radii in radius) can most likely be found in the available Kepler data of K stars, including moons in the stellar habitable zone. A future survey with Kepler-class photometry, such as Plato 2.0, and a permanent monitoring of a single field of view over 5 years or more will very likely discover extrasolar moons via their OSEs.