For a complex world-building scenario I want a habitable moon orbiting a habitable earth-like planet. The habitable moon should allow for flora, fauna and landscape as similar to earth as possible. The same goes for the habitable earth-like planet it is orbiting.

I have checked the various topics concerned with habitable moons:

Based on what I read there, especially Jim2B's answer here, I have created the following moon with this calculator:

  • mass: 0.33 of earth’s mass (around 3 times the mass of mars)
  • density: 1.3 of earth's density (because I want a higher surface gravity)
  • radius: 0.6332 of earth’s mass (calculated by the application using mass and density as a given)

This is all calculated by the program:

  • Diameter = 8070 km
  • Density = 7.176 g/cm³
  • Surface Area = 204.5 million square km
  • Roche Limit = 1000 km (nearest possible natural satelite)
  • Surface Gravity = 0.83 Gs
  • Geosynchronous orbital distance = 24820 km, or miles (from surface of planet)
  • Geosynchronous orbital velocity = 2.13 km/s , or miles per second

Maximum surface* temperature to hold onto an atmospheric component for billions of years, for each type of gas:

  • Carbon Dioxide? 2972 °C
  • Oxygen? 2087 °C
  • Helium? 22 °C
  • Hydrogen? -126 °C

Could such a moon possibly exist? And if not what changes would be needed to make this moon around an earth-like planet possible?

Please consider the following points particularly:

  • Density of the moon: I need it as high as possible to have the surface gravity of the moon approximate 1 g. Playing around with the calculator I have settled on 1.3 times the density of earth, which gives a surface gravity of 0.83 Gs. This means a density of 7.176 g/cm³. Is this density achievable by still keeping a similar elemental composition to earth's? If not, could that be achieved by replacing some of the iron with a denser element? What properties would such an element have to have?
  • Atmosphere: Could this moon sustain the necessary atmosphere considering the surface temperatures?
  • Earth-like planet the moon is orbiting: This planet has the roughly same mass and radius as earth. If a larger mass and/or surface is necessary to have such a moon, that would be ok, as long as the density of the earth-like planet could be lower to keep the surface gravity of said planet at 1 G.
  • Distances between planet and moon: No specific requirements. Can be anything to make this planet-moon relationship work.
  • Size relations between planet and moon: Apparently accretion disk formations would make such a large moon compared to the planet unlikely, but would it be impossible? Could there be any other scientifically explanation for a planet having such a large moon, for instance a "rogue moon" captured by the planet (Theia captured instead of a collision), the moon being debris from the planet itself or something else? This alternate explanation can be unlikely, as long as it is scientifically sound and possible at all.
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    $\begingroup$ This is really well researched, and props for checking other answers on this site. +1, hopefully you find your answer. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ It is beyond me, but I would offer that a moon with a significantly different density than its host planet probably got captured whole as opposed to being ejected from its host by a planetary collision (as is believed to be the case for our moon). Good Luck! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ There's one thing that I think you've missed, and that is that the earth has an atmosphere in no small part because it is protected form the solar winds by the earth's magnetic field. The moon has no such field. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ Beware that those temperature numbers are for the thermosphere, not the planetary surface. Earth's thermosphere is in the 2000C range. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ Remember to account for the large amount of heavy metals indicated by having a higher density. $\endgroup$
    – Zan Lynx
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 1:32

3 Answers 3


It's definitely within the realm of possibility.

Real quick first, defining terms to make comparison easier (I really do hate the pronoun game):
Earth: Our planet.
Luna: Our moon.
Terruh: The planet your moon orbits (since it's definitely not Terra, get it? Okay, tough crowd.)
Lunuh: Your moon (since it's... okay, fine.)

Density: You need Lunuh to have an average density of around 7.2 g/cm3. That's workable. Here is a list of the approximate density of various "layers" of Earth - crusts, mantle, etc. For Lunuh, you'll want either the higher-density layers to be thicker/bigger (relatively speaking) OR the densities themselves to increase. Density increase is probably easiest - for example, the inner core of Earth is an iron-nickel alloy which is about 80% iron, but nickel is denser than iron so an increase in the amount of nickel would lead to an increase in density. You could also try, for example, reducing the thickness of the mantle, but I don't have enough geological experience to know what would happen if you tried that. But, on the bright side, the iron-nickel core will give Lunuh a nice magnetic field, which is good for habitability.

Atmosphere: Yes, it could definitely hold on to a breathable atmosphere if the necessary gasses were there. Note that the numbers given are for maximum temperature. The higher the temperature, the faster the molecules are moving, so the more likely they are to escape into space. Since Lunuh won't be reaching temperatures of 2000 C (since we, you know, don't want to melt when we visit), it will definitely be able to hold an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere.

The Planet: Terruh can exist no problem. Its existence is its own problem outside of having Lunuh orbiting it. There are side effects of having such a large moon, such as significantly bigger tides and brighter nights, but those aren't existence problems.

Distances: It's a good thing that you don't have any requirements for the distance between Terruh and Lunuh, because this moon will have to be quite a bit further away from Terruh than Luna is from Earth. You specified that Lunuh will be 1/3 the mass of Mars, which means that it will be about nine times the mass of Luna (WA link). In order to get the same gravitational force between Terruh and Lunuh as between Earth and Luna, Lunuh would need to be triple the distance from Terruh that Luna is from Earth. More on that in a sec.

Size Relations: As @HenryTaylor said in a comment, it would be more likely to have been captured than formed via impact or accretion disk. My best hand-wavy explanation would involve Terruh capturing Lunuh during the tumultuous early life of the solar system, but given that planetary formation in general is still largely in the realm of hypotheses, I can't say too much as far as scientific rigor is concerned.

So all in all it looks okay. We can have large moons, though at a certain point we have to ask ourselves if it's really just two planets orbiting each other.

The main problem I'm seeing is the issue of tidal locking. Luna is tidally locked to Earth, which is why we only ever see one side of it. If Lunuh got tidally locked with Terruh, things could get problematic as far as the habitability side of things is concerned. Remember that it's triple the distance from Terruh that Luna is from Earth, so it's orbital distance (relative to the planet) is six times that of Luna. Assuming the same orbital velocity (not sure whether/how much it would have to change to make a stable orbit), that means it would have a day-night cycle of six months (in Earth time). That's not exactly conducive to life, so it absolutely cannot be tidally locked. But other than that, it seems like it would work fine.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder whether Terruh would be also tidally locked with Lunuh. Your thoughts? This closer to a double planet than a standard planet & moon, so it's likely both bodies will orbit a common barycentre instead of Lunuh orbiting Terruh like Luna does Earth. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android Quite possible. Depends on the exact configuration, obviously, but I can definitely see it playing out like Pluto and Charon being locked with each other and orbiting a barycenter outside of Pluto. Course, that would lead to all sorts of problems regarding habitability (if they're tidally locked they're going to have to have very long days and nights). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRobinson Thank you for your detailed answer. Just one clarification by me: the mass of the moon is 1/3 of earth's mass, that is three times the mass of mars. I ight have worded this confusingly, so I edited this part to make it clearer. Is there any way to avoid tidal locking and to have this as a double planet system? The moon can have less mass, it is just the high density that I need and less mass means even higher density stretching the possible if I still want the moon to be earthlike on the surface. Should I ask a new question for that? $\endgroup$
    – DerGreif
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ @DerGreif There's no way to totally prevent tidal locking. It will happen to any object in orbit around another if given enough time. All things being equal, it will happen to large objects faster than small objects. However, the time it takes to lock is known to have LOTS of uncertainty in the calculation, so you could probably get away with saying that they aren't locked yet. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @DerGreif Although if you're looking at 1/3 the mass of the Earth, it's most definitely going to be a system orbiting a barycenter outside of either object. Pluto and Charon are such a system, and Charon is only 12% of Pluto's mass. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 22:24

What you have here is really a double planet. I'd recommend just going for that, and have two quite similar planets orbiting their mutual centre of gravity. That lets you get rid of the density problem, and makes it easy to accept they both have fairly fast rotation and hence magnetic fields and reasonable atmospheres.

Having such a double planet form is quite unlikely, but it's only unlikely, not impossible.

As a bonus, having two potentially life-bearing planets so close makes it positively plausible that life could spread from one to the other via bacteria carried on debris from impact events on one planet, which happens to hit the other planet.

Addition: there isn't any fundamental difference between a large moon, with a fraction of the planet's mass, and a double planet. In both cases both of them orbit a barycentre, it's just that a larger moon means the barycentre is further from the centre of the planet. But that doesn't make any very major difference.

If the moon is going to blow up, you need to consider what happens to the debris. If the moon is blasted apart and disperses in all directions, the chunks that hit the planet will be more than adequate to cause an extinction event.

If you remove the moon in some way that doesn't damage the planet, the loss of the moon will perturb the planet's orbit, in a way that depends on their positions relative to the sun when the moon goes away.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting answer. I upvoted it. Do you see any chance of having this as a real planet moon system. this is really important for me (besides the moon being habitable). $\endgroup$
    – DerGreif
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but I don't quite understand what you're asking. Could you unpack it a bit? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, sorry, English is not my native language. I need the mooon to orbit the planet, because somewhere down the line I want to blow the moon up and I fear that if the moon and planet would be orbiting a barycenter this would severely affect the planet and its habitability. If I am wrong there, than I am fine with a barycenter orbited by both. $\endgroup$
    – DerGreif
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Added to my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 22:18

This sounds plausible to me. Large moons are sometimes formed in hydrodynamical simulations of giant impacts between protoplanets in the late stages of planet formation. The hardest part to buy is the density. Mercury has a lot more iron than Earth but its density is about the same because, with less gravity it is less compressed. We also don't know of any exoplanets with densities that indicate a much more iron-rich composition than Earth (although they are very hard to measure).

UPDATE: There is now a 2.6 Earth-mass exoplanet known with a Mercury-like composition -- see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K2-229b

  • $\begingroup$ Density is indeed the trick here. The Earth is already pretty close to being as dense as possible without an absurd composition; after you go past iron, the later (denser) elements of the periodic table become significantly rarer in the universe. Also, iron is what's responsible for generating the Earth's magnetic field, and this hypothetical moon is going to need one to shield any life from UV, etc. You can't really get a realistic planet with a density much higher than the Earth, so I think the OP is going to have to scale up the moon or lower the gravity to get this to work. $\endgroup$
    – Palarran
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Palarran It could also be a captured body. Capture mechanics on a world that size are... Tricky... But it's a big universe - if it can happen, it will happen. $\endgroup$
    – UIDAlexD
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @UIDAlexD I was talking about the limits on the moon's actual composition, not necessarily how it came to be there. All elements on the periodic table after iron (the denser metals that would be needed) are created by supernovas. The quantities of these metals are positively miniscule compared to the lighter elements. In other words, you can't realistically get a planetary body with a density significantly greater than the Earth (composed mostly of iron and silicon), not if you want it to remain anywhere near Earth-sized. You could say it's theoretically possible, but never believable. $\endgroup$
    – Palarran
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ I am willing to concede the realism of density to an otherwise rare element making up a larger part of that planetary make-up. but thank you for explaining that, I upvoted accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – DerGreif
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Palarran: Maybe the moon could be made almost completely of iron and nickel, with only a thin, rocky crust. Even Mercury still has a considerable mantle - you could get the density up significantly past Earth's by replacing that with ferronickel as well. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 20:40

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