Image of Earth with two moons, generated in Celestia software, by Grebenkov in Wikimedia Commons.
Many planets in our solar system have more than one moon. Mars has two moons, Jupiter has 67, Saturn 62, Uranus 27, Neptune 14. Those numbers keep changing, and you can see a relatively current count of solar system moons here from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It makes sense that the outer worlds, with their stronger gravity, would have more moons. Meanwhile, our planet Earth has just one moon. Doesn’t it?
Moons are defined as Earth’s natural satellites. They orbit around the Earth. And, in fact, although Earth sometimes has more than one moon, some objects you might have heard called Earth’s second moon aren’t, really. Let’s talk about some non-moons first.
Quasi-satellites are not second moons for Earth. A quasi-satellite is an object in a co-orbital configuration with Earth (or another planet). Scientists would say there is a 1:1 orbital resonance between Earth and this object. In other words, a quasi-satellite is orbiting the sun, just as Earth is. Its orbit around the sun takes exactly the same time as Earth’s orbit, but the shape of the orbit is slightly different.
The most famous quasi-satellite in our time – and an object you might have heard called a second moon for Earth – is 3753 Cruithne. This object is five kilometers – about three miles – wide. Notice it has an asteroid name. That’s because it is an asteroid orbiting our sun, one of several thousand asteroids whose orbits cross Earth’s orbit. Astronomers discovered Cruithne in 1986, but it wasn’t until 1997 that they figured out its complex orbit. It’s not a second moon for Earth; it doesn’t orbit Earth. But Cruithne is co-orbiting the sun with Earth. Like all quasi-satellites, Cruithne orbits the sun once for every orbit of Earth.