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Starts With A Bang

Yes, Two Planets Can Both Share The Same Orbit

And one of our planets has the orbiting moons to prove it.

Despite the dangers posed to planet Earth by a comet or asteroid strike, our Solar System is actually an incredibly stable place. All eight of our planets are expected to remain in their orbits, stably, for as long as the Sun remains a normal, main sequence star. But this isn’t necessarily the case for all Solar Systems.

If two planets pass closely by one another in orbit, one can perturb the other, resulting in a massive orbital change. These two planets could collide, one of them could get ejected, or one could even get hurled into their central star. But there’s another possibility: these two planets could successfully share a single orbit together, remaining in orbit around their parent star indefinitely. It might seem counterintuitive, but our Solar System offers a clue to how this could occur.

While a visual inspection shows a large gap between the various planets in our Solar System, it does not need to necessarily be this way. Multiple planets could share the same orbit via a number of possible mechanisms, and perhaps in the future, we’ll find a solar system out there with co-orbiting planets. (LUNAR AND PLANETARY INSTITUTE)

According to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), there are three things an orbiting body needs to do in order to be a planet:

  1. It needs to be in hydrostatic equilibrium, or have enough gravity to pull it into a spheroidal shape. (In other words, a perfect sphere, plus whatever rotational and other effects distort it.)
  2. It needs to orbit the Sun and not any other body (e.g., it cannot orbit another planet).
  3. And it needs to clear its orbit of any planetesimals, proto-planets, or planetary competitors.

This last definition, strictly speaking, rules out two planets sharing the same orbit, since the orbit wouldn’t be cleared if there were two of them.

In principle, even two gas giant planets that were in orbit around the same star would not be considered planets if they shared an orbit. The IAU definition is inadequate in many ways, even for planetary and exoplanetary astronomers. (NASA/AMES/JPL-CALTECH)

Fortunately, we’re not bound by the IAU’s questionable definition in considering co-orbiting planets. We can instead choose to worry about whether it would be possible to have two Earth-like planets that share the same orbit around their star. The big worry, of course, is gravitation.

Gravitation is capable of ruining a dual orbit in one of the two ways we imagined earlier:

  1. a gravitational interaction can “kick” one of the planets very hard, either sending it into the sun or out of the solar system,
  2. or the mutual gravitational attraction of the two planets can cause them to merge, resulting in a spectacular collision.

In simulations that we run to model the formations of solar systems from proto-planetary disks, both of these effects are seen extremely frequently.

A synestia will consist of a mixture of vaporized material from both proto-Earth and the impactor, which forms a large moon inside of it from the coalescence of moonlets. This is a general scenario capable of creating one single, large moon with the physical and chemical properties we observe ours to have. It is more general that the Giant Impact hypothesis, which involves a collision between Earth and a hypothesized co-orbiting protoplanetary world: Theia. (S. J. LOCK ET AL., J. GEOPHYS RESEARCH, 123, 4 (2018), P. 910–951)

This latter case is, in fact, something that may have happened to Earth when the Solar System was only a few tens of millions of years old! There was definitely a collision, some 4.5 billion years ago, that resulted in the formation of our modern Earth-Moon system. In addition, it very likely caused a major resurfacing event on our planet; even the oldest rocks we find on Earth are not as old as the oldest meteorites, likely of asteroidal origins, that we’ve discovered.

Two planets don’t do a great job of occupying the same exact orbit, however, because there’s no such thing as true stability in these cases. The best you can do is hope for a quasi-stable orbit. In this context, quasi-stable means that technically, on infinitely long timescales, everything is unstable, and these planets will play a game of Thunderdome: where at most one will remain.

A contour plot of the effective potential of the Earth-Sun system. Objects can be in a stable, lunar-like orbit around the Earth or a quasi-stable orbit leading-or-trailing (or alternating between both both) the Earth. The L1, L2, and L3 points are points of unstable equilibrium, but an object in orbit around the L4 or L5 point can remain stable indefinitely. (NASA)

However, you can obtain configurations that will sustain themselves billions of years before one of those two “bad” events occurs. To understand how, you need to take a look at the above diagram, and in particular at the five labeled (in green) points: Lagrange points.

If you only considered two masses — the Sun and a single planet — there are five specific points where the gravitational effects of the Sun and the planet cancel out, and all three bodies move in a stable orbit forever. Unfortunately, only two of these Lagrange points, L4 and L5, are stable; anything that starts out at the other three (L1, L2, or L3) will unstably move away, winding up either colliding with the main planet or getting ejected.

The orbits of Cruithne and Earth over the course of a year. Cruithne’s location is indicated by the red box as it is too small to be seen at this distance. Earth is the white dot moving along the blue circle. The yellow circle in the centre is our Sun. Although 3753 Cruithne isn’t exactly stable, it has remained in an apparent orbit around one of Earth’s Lagrange points (from our perspective) for hundreds of years, and will remain for hundreds more. (JECOWA OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

But L4 and L5 are the points around which asteroids collect. The gas giant worlds all have thousands, but even Earth has one: the asteroid 3753 Cruithne, which is presently in a quasi-stable orbit with our world!

Although this asteroid in particular isn’t stable on billion-year timescales, it is definitely possible for two planets to share an orbit just like this. It’s also possible to have a binary planet, which would be a lot like the Earth/Moon system (or the Pluto/Charon system), except with no clear “winner” as to who’s the planet and who’s the moon. If you had a system where two planets were comparable in mass/size, and only separated by a short distance, you could have what’s known as either a binary or double planet system. Recent studies indicate that this is legitimately possible.

But there’s one more way to do it, and this is something you might not have thought was stable: you can have two planets of comparable mass in two separate orbits, one interior to the other, where the orbits swap periodically as the inner world overtakes the outer world. You might think this is crazy, but our Solar System has an example where this happens: two of Saturn’s Moons, Epimetheus and Janus.

Every four years, whichever moon is interior (closer to Saturn) comes to overtake the exterior one, and their mutual gravitational pull causes the inner moon to move outward, while the outer moon moves inward, and they swap.

The physics of how Janus and Epimetheus swap orbits can be explained by simple gravitational dynamics of two low-mass objects in orbit around a much higher-mass object. Mutual gravitational interactions can exist in a quasi-stable fashion like this, creating orbits that are stable for billions of years or longer. (EMILY LAKDAWALLA, 2006)

Over the past 25 years, we’ve observed these two moons dance quite a bit, with the configurations repeating themselves without perceptible changes over an eight year period. As far as we can tell, this configuration is not just stable on human timescales, but ought to be stable over the lifetime of our Solar System.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

Resonances appear in many different ways in planetary dynamics, including the way that Neptune affects the distribution of Kuiper belt objects, the way that Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, and Ganymede obey a simple 1:2:4 orbital pattern, and in how Mercury’s rotational speed and orbital motion obey a 3:2 resonance.

Janus and Epimetheus are two moons, of Saturn, that share the same orbit via orbit swapping. Because of the differences in mass between them, Janus’ orbit varies by approximately three times as much in its semimajor axis as Epimetheus’ orbit. These two moons swap positions every four years, but appear to have never collided. (NASA / JPL / DAVID SEAL)

It’s no surprise that planetary orbits might also obey an orbit-swapping resonance, with Janus and Epimethius providing a spectacular example. You might object that these are moons around a planet, not planets around a star, but gravity is gravity, mass is mass, and orbits are orbits. The exact magnitude is the only difference, while the dynamics can be extremely similar.

Considering that we now know of exoplanetary systems that exist in great abundance around M-class, red dwarf stars, and that they appear analogous to either the Jovian or Saturnian systems, In other words, it’s totally conceivable that we’d have a planetary system somewhere in our galaxy with two planets (rather than moons) that do exactly this!

TRAPPIST-1 system compared to the inner planets of the solar system and the moons of Jupiter. Although it might seem arbitrary how these objects are classified, there are definitive links between the formation and evolutionary history of all of these bodies and the physical properties that they have today. The solar systems around red dwarf stars appear to be just scaled-up analogues of either Jupiter or Saturn. (NASA / JPL-CALTECH)

The unfortunate news, at least for now, is that out of the thousands of discovered planets around other stars, we don’t have any binary planet candidates yet. There was one candidate that was announced in the early days of the Kepler mission, but it was retracted, as one of the co-orbiting planetary candidates was discovered to actually have twice the period of the main planet. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. These co-orbiting planets may be rare, but with more and better data, we fully expect to find them.

Give us a better planet-finding telescope, a million stars with planets around them, and about 10 years of observing time. With facilities like those, we’d likely find examples of all three possible examples of planet-sharing orbits. The laws of gravity and our simulations tell us they ought to be there. The only step left is to find them.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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