Worlds Without Moons


Many of the exoplanets that we’ve discovered lie in compact systems with orbits very close to their host star. These systems are especially interesting in the case of cool stars where planets lie in the star’s habitable zone — as is the case, for instance, for the headline-making TRAPPIST-1 system.

But other factors go into determining potential habitability of a planet beyond the rough location where water can remain liquid. One possible consideration: whether the planets have moons.

Supporting Habitability

Moon stability

Locations of equality between the Hill and Roche radius for five different potential moon densities. The phase space allows for planets of different semi-major axes and stellar host masses. Two example systems are shown, Kepler-80 and TRAPPIST-1, with dots representing the planets within them. [Kane 2017]

Earth’s Moon is thought to have been a critical contributor to our planet’s habitability. The presence of a moon stabilizes its planet’s axial tilt, preventing wild swings in climate as the star’s radiation shifts between the planet’s poles and equator. But what determines if a planet can have a moon?

A planet can retain a moon in a stable orbit anywhere between an outer boundary of the Hill radius (beyond which the planet’s gravity is too weak to retain the moon) and an inner boundary of the Roche radius (inside which the moon would be torn apart by tidal forces). The locations of these boundaries depend on both the planet’s and moon’s properties, and they can be modified by additional perturbative forces from the host star and other planets in the system.

In a new study, San Francisco State University scientist Stephen R. Kane modeled these boundaries for planets specifically in compact systems, to determine whether  such planets can host moons to boost their likelihood of habitability.

TRAPPIST-1 moon stability

Allowed moon density as a function of semimajor axis for the TRAPPIST-1 system, for two different scenarios with different levels of perturbations. The vertical dotted lines show the locations of the six innermost TRAPPIST-1 planets. [Kane 2017]

Challenge of Moons in Compact Systems

Kane found that compact systems have a harder time supporting stable moons; the range of radii at which their moons can orbit is greatly reduced relative to spread-out systems like our own. As an example, Kane calculates that if the Earth were in a compact planetary system with a semimajor axis of 0.05 AU, its Hill radius would shrink from being 78.5 times to just 4.5 times its Roche radius — greatly narrowing the region in which our Moon would be able to reside.

Kane applied his models to the TRAPPIST-1 system as an example, demonstrating that it’s very unlikely that many — if any — of the system’s seven planets would be able to retain a stable moon unless that moon were unreasonably dense.

Is TRAPPIST-1 Really Moonless?

Moon transit

Image of the Moon as it transits across the face of the Sun, as viewed from the Stereo-B spacecraft (which is in an Earth-trailing orbit). [NASA]

How do these results fit with other observations of TRAPPIST-1? Kane uses our Moon as an example again: if we were watching a transit of the Earth and Moon in front of the Sun from a distance, the Moon’s transit depth would be 7.4% as deep as Earth’s. A transit of this depth in the TRAPPIST-1 system would have been detectable in Spitzer photometry of the system — so the fact that we didn’t see anything like this supports the idea that the TRAPPIST-1 planets don’t have large moons.

On the other hand, smaller moons (perhaps no more than 200–300 km in radius) would have escaped detection. Future long-term monitoring of TRAPPIST-1 with observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope or 30-meter-class ground-based telescopes will help constrain this possibility, however.


Stephen R. Kane 2017 ApJL 839 L19. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/aa6bf2

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