No one's ever seen a moonmoon but the internet already loves them

Saturn’s moon Iapetus might in theory have its own submoon

We're writing about it because these moons of moons are called "moonmoons".

In a paper now up on pre-print resource arXiv, astronomers Juna Kollmeier of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Sean Raymond of the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Bordeaux have called them submoons.

Bottom-line, if there is such thing as a moonmoon, it would only exist around larger moons.

The mere possibility of them, and their absence from where we might expect to see them "provides important clues to the formation mechanisms and histories of" solar systems. But the setup would be tricky: A moonmoon would need to sit in a "Goldilocks zone" close enough to remain gravitationally bound to its host moon instead of the planet, but far enough away to not get drawn in by the host's gravitational force, the researchers report this week on the arXiv preprint server. According to scientists, "subline" can remain stable if its dimensions are small (on the order of ten kilometers in radius), and her "mother" satellite, on the contrary, massive enough (at least 1000 miles) and rotates at a great distance from its planet. It turns out that several moons in our own solar system fit the bill and could host submoons, including Titan and Iapetus, which orbit Saturn, and Callisto, which orbits Jupiter.

But there's still one really key ingredient.

Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura explains that moonmoon is catching on because there's something pleasing about "recursive places", like islands within islands, volcanoes within volcanoes and rivers running through a sea.

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And then that delicate gravitational balance would have to be maintained.

There are specific conditions for a moon to be able to capture its own moon. Just not as exciting as calling them "moonmoons". However, the New Scientist made a decision to call them "moonmoons".

And, given the difficulty in detecting even a moon outside the Solar System, our chances of spotting an exomoonmoon are, for the time being, pretty much zero. It's submoons, but NewScientist's Leah Carey has a better idea: moonmoons.

A few years ago, an astronomer's son asked the type of question only kids and genius astrophysicists come up with: Can a moon have a moon?

"Further studies of the potential formation mechanisms, long-term dynamical survival, and detectability of submoons is encouraged", Kollimeier concludes in the two-page paper.

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