A habitable planet with multiple moons, only one of which is tidally locked to the planet: is this general scenario possible?

I understand that tidal locking takes a very long time to happen. So maybe this setup could be achieved by having one very old moon and some newer moons, where the older moon is tidally locked to the planet (and the newer moons haven't had the chance yet).

Presumably (?), if the new moons were created in an impact event like Earth's moon, this would destabilise the older moon causing it to unlock from the planet. But if the new moons were formed by e.g. asteroids being captured by the planet's gravity, this wouldn't be a problem.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hello daisy, and welcome to Worldbuilding. Just to clarify, do you have a number of additional, non-locked moons in mind, and do you have specific sizes and/or distances of any of the moons, or do you just want to know if the general idea is plausible? If the former, please edit your question to include that information. Please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have a nice day! $\endgroup$
    – Gryphon
    Jun 25, 2018 at 23:24

2 Answers 2


The time it takes a moon to become tidally locked to a planet depends on a number of factors. In particular, $$t_{\text{lock}}\propto\frac{\omega a^6}{m_p^{2}}$$ where $\omega$ is the moon's initial angular speed, $a$ is its semi-major axis, and $m_p$ is the mass of the planet. There's a very strong dependence on $a$ - double it, and we increase $t_{\text{lock}}$ by a factor of 64! So if it takes, say, 10 million years for a moon with semi-major axis $a_1$ to become tidally locked with its planet, then a moon with semi-major axis $a_2=2a_1$ could take 640 million years to become tidally locked - even if they started with the same period of rotation.

Let's crunch some numbers. The initial conditions of the Moon after its formation are unknown, but there's been some modeling of them. Cuk et al. (2016) did some simulations of the rotation of both Earth and the Moon. Using their modeling, I'm going to assume several things:

  • The Moon's initial angular speed was $\sim10^{-5}$ radians/second.
  • The initial semi-major axis was about 25 Earth radii, or $\sim1.6\times10^8$ meters.
  • The time until tidal locking was about 20 million years, give or take.

Therefore, using the mass of the Earth, $M_{\oplus}$, we find that $$t_{\text{lock}}\approx2\times10^7\left(\frac{\omega}{10^{-5}\text{ rad s}^{-1}}\right)\left(\frac{a}{1.5\times10^8\text{ m}}\right)^6\left(\frac{m_p}{M_{\oplus}}\right)^{-2}\text{ years}$$ This does assume that certain physical properties of the satellite, such as its radius, mass, and love number are all the same as the Moon's. However, it's simple to add more terms to the scaling relation to take this into account. Notice that if we take the ratio of the tidal locking timescales for two moons orbiting the same planet, the term involving $m_p$ drops out.

Now, this kind of variation is possible. The moons of Mars have significantly different orbits; Deimos has a semi-major axis two and a half times as large as Phobos'! We see even greater variation in the moons of giant planets, such as the moons of Saturn, but I doubt there would be that sort of orbital difference around terrestrial planets, for the simple reasons that 1) it's hard for lower-mass bodies to form many moons, and 2) the Hill sphere - the region in which an object can have satellites - is smaller for low-mass planets.

It seems likely - possible, at the least - that the moons around the giant planets formed at different times. Some of the ones with smaller orbits could have formed with the planet, out of the disk of dust and rock surrounding it. The outer moons might have been captured later on, from asteroids or bits of protoplanets. Additionally, some may have formed in collisional families, meaning that some groups of moons could have formed at different times. Each group would have formed from the fragmentation of an asteroid captured by the planet - the Ananke and Carme families of moons around Jupiter are prime examples. Of course, less-massive terrestrial planets are less likely to capture asteroids, but then again, the moons of Mars were likely once asteroids.

  • $\begingroup$ nice formula, but is it independent of the mass of the moon? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Aug 17, 2018 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @user Yep, I believe it's independent of the moon's mass. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Aug 17, 2018 at 22:08

The Pluto system is almost exactly what you want, in the terms you are interested, with two caveats:

  1. Pluto is mutually tidally locked to Charon, implying a long day (6 Earth days), which could affect habitability

  2. Pluto has a small in mass and hence its gravity is small (6% that of Earth), which is bad for human habitability at least

It is not difficult to imagine this configuration with more Earth-like characteristics: closer to the primary, the two main objects with a bigger mass, a more life-friendly composition, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Charon is about half the mass of Pluto. If it was much smaller I'd assume Pluto would not be tidally locked with Charon. The other three moons of the system are only few kilometers in diameter and much further apart; I'd expect them to disrupt the tidal lock if they were bigger causing enough gravitational pull on Charon. $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2018 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @OttoAbnormalverbraucher I think there is a wide range of not-very-likely-yet-with-a-non-zero-probability solutions that can be explained by phenomena like the late-heavy bombardment (late captures, an impact-driven rotation slow-down here, a body rotating a bit slower than expected there). I mean, even Earth's moon is kind of exceptional, but there you have it $\endgroup$
    – Rafael
    Jun 26, 2018 at 16:11

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