Astrophysics of Pandora, the moon-world from Avatar

A while back, I wrote a blog post about Pandora, the gas giant moon that is the setting for Avatar, the visual masterpiece by James Cameron.

To celebrate the opening of Avatar 2: the way of water this week, I made a slideshow to give a little more astrophysical context to Pandora. And, like the movies, it’s all about the visuals — just click through the slides, like you’re sliding down a waterfall, with a gas giant hanging in the sky…

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  1. Neat summary! However, I think there is one small error. If the planet is around the size of Jupiter, and presumably the mass of Jupiter, then a 15-day orbit corresponds to an orbital radius of 1.75 x 10^9 m, or 1,750,000 km. At that distance from Polyphemus, and with a 29 degree orbital tilt to the plane of the orbit of Polyphemus, the configurations shown in the “Seasons” slide (i.e. the solstices) would not create eclipses for Pandora. It would experience the eclipses during some of the year around the equinoxes, but not every day.

    Depending on the mass-radius relationship the Polyphemus follows, it seems like it would have to be well into the Neptunian regime in order for a 15-day orbit with a 29 degree obliquity to always experience eclipses.

    1. Hi Josh — You are right, eclipses shouldn’t happen every time if Pandora’s orbit is aligned with Polyphemus’ equator. They should be seasonal, like you suggest. Thanks for catching that!

  2. I’m not a fan of Avatar, but i find this topic super entertaining. That was a nice read!

    How does one calculate the eclipse period of a moon? I’d like to play with numbers for a double-planet system I invented.

    1. The orbital period calculation is pretty straightforward – you just use Kepler’s third Law that relates the distance between the planet and the moon and the mass of the planet to calculate the orbital period. In the above comment, I just did that in reverse to calculate the distance between the planet and the moon. You can likely assume that the moon’s mass is much less than the planet’s mass to make the calculation simpler.

      The question of how often eclipses happen is tricky – it depends on the orientation between the orbital plane of the moon around the planet and the orbital plane of the planet around the star. So if the angle between the two were zero degrees (i.e., the moon was orbiting the planet in the same plane as the planet orbited the star), then the planet and the moon would eclipse every orbit of the moon. If the angle were 90 degrees (i.e. the moon was orbiting the planet perpendicular to the orbital plane of the planet around the star) then there would only be very few eclipses right when the orbital plane of the moon passed through the star (twice a year). For angles between zero and 90, you have to consider the geometry of the moon, planet, and star and see when you get the proper alignment over what fraction of the year. And it gets even more complicated if either the planet’s orbit or the moon’s orbit is eccentric (non-circular).

      Great exercises for high school or college physics classes!

    1. This is a valid question — I personally think life is robust enough that it could handle such a change, and climate models show that slow-rotating planets can often maintain liquid water. So, I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker.

      1. Chris Wayan once imagined Venus as a terraformed planet. As part of the terraforming process it was made to rotate much faster then it does in reality. Its rotation is still retrograde compared to the other planets. However, he imagined a rotation time of 13 – 15 days. This is slow enough to create changes similar to seasons. But it does not affect overall planetary habitability. His descriptions of the climate of his other fictitious worlds do make sense to me. So I suppose that would work.

  3. Polyphemus and as such Pandora likely don’t exist. However, since Polyphemus is orbiting a real-life star it is possible to simulate its climate. If Pandora has a 20% thicker atmosphere which is 20% carbon dioxide how far can it be from Alpha Centaury A and still be ice-free? Has anyone calculated this?

    1. There have been a number of studies to understand the size of the habitable zone around different types of stars and including different atmospheric compositions. The outer limit is at about 2.1 au I believe, and this should hold even for a somewhat thicker atmosphere.

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