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The large-moon hypothesis: can it be tested?

  • Dave Waltham (a1)

The large-moon hypothesis states that planetary habitability is enhanced by the presence of a large satellite. This controversial proposal is linked to the equally controversial idea that the axial stability of a planet also enhances habitability. Previous work has shown that, far from encouraging axial stability, large moons actually destabilize obliquity when the effects of tidal drag on the planetary spin rate are taken into account. However, our Moon's mass is remarkably close to the upper limit allowed by axial stability, suggesting that the large-moon hypothesis is actually correct but constrained by an independent requirement for axial stability. This conclusion can be tested by looking at the typical separations between large exo-planets because axial stability is more likely in planetary systems with widely spaced gas giants. Thus, if axial stability really does enhance habitability, Jupiter and Saturn should be unusually widely spaced. This can be tested using data expected from gravitational microlensing planet-search surveys. Unfortunately, in the event of a negative result from this test, it is not possible to distinguish whether this results from large moons and stable axes being unimportant for life or results from large moons and stable axes being widespread.

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International Journal of Astrobiology
  • ISSN: 1473-5504
  • EISSN: 1475-3006
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-astrobiology
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