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date: 07 December 2023

The Formation of the Martian Moonslocked

The Formation of the Martian Moonslocked

  • Pascal Rosenblatt, Pascal RosenblattLaboratoire de Planetologie et Geodynamique Nantes
  • Ryuki Hyodo, Ryuki HyodoEarth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology
  • Francesco Pignatale, Francesco PignataleCAGE, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris
  • Antony Trinh, Antony TrinhRoyal Observatory of Belgium
  • Sebastien Charnoz, Sebastien CharnozCAGE, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris
  • Kevin Dunseath, Kevin DunseathInstitut de Physique de Rennes, Universite de Rennes 1
  • Mariko Dunseath-TeraoMariko Dunseath-TeraoInstitut de Physique de Rennes, Universite de Rennes 1
  •  and Hidenori GendaHidenori GendaEarth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology


The origin of the natural satellites or moons of the solar system is as challenging to unravel as the formation of the planets. Before the start of the space probe exploration era, this topic of planetary science was restricted to telescopic observations, which limited the possibility of testing different formation scenarios. This era has considerably boosted this topic of research, particularly after the Apollo missions returned samples from the Moon’s surface to Earth. Observations from subsequent deep space missions such as Viking 1 and 2 Orbiters, Voyager 1 and 2, Phobos-2, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and the most recent Mars orbiters such as Mars Express, as well as from the Hubble space telescope, have served to intensify research in this area.

Each moon system has its own specificities, with different origins and histories. It is widely accepted that the Earth’s Moon formed after a giant collision between the proto-Earth and a body similar in size to Mars. The Galilean moons of Jupiter, on the other hand, appear to have formed by accretion in a circum-Jovian disk, while smaller, irregularly shaped satellites were probably captured by the giant planet. The small and medium-sized Saturnian moons may have formed from the rings encircling the planet. Among the terrestrial planets, Mercury and Venus have no moons, the Earth has a single large moon, and Mars has two very small satellites. This raises some challenging questions: What processes can lead to moon formation around terrestrial planets and what parameters determine the possible outcomes, such as the number and size of moons? The answer to such fundamental questions necessarily entails a thorough understanding of the formation of the Martian system and may have relevance to the possible existence of (exo)moons orbiting exoplanets. The formation of such exomoons is of great importance as they could influence conditions for habitability or for maintaining life over long periods of time on the surface of Earth-like exoplanets, for example by limiting the variations of the orientation of the planet’s rotation axis and thus preventing frequent changes of its climate.

Our current knowledge concerning the origin of Phobos and Deimos has been acquired from observational data as well as theoretical work. Early observations led to the idea that the two satellites were captured asteroids but this created difficulties in reconciling the current orbits of Phobos and Deimos with those of captured bodies, hence suggesting the need for an alternative theory. A giant-impact scenario provides a description of how moons similar to Phobos and Deimos can be formed in orbits similar to those observed today. This scenario also restricts the range of possible composition of the two moons, providing a motivation for future missions that aim for the first time to bring material from the Martian system back to Earth.


  • History of Ideas about Planets and Planetary Systems
  • Small Bodies
  • Planet Formation

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