More Nomad Planets Than Stars?
New research indicates that 'nomad planets", that is, planetary bodies that are not gravitationally attached to a sun or suns, may be 100,000 times more numerous than previously supposed.
(Artistic rendition of a nomad object wandering the interstellar medium.)
"If any of these nomad planets are big enough to have a thick atmosphere, they could have trapped enough heat for bacterial life to exist," said Louis Strigari, leader of the team that reported the result in a paper submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Although nomad planets don't bask in the warmth of a star, they may generate heat through internal radioactive decay and tectonic activity.
Searches over the past two decades have identified more than 500 planets outside our solar system, almost all of which orbit stars. Last year, researchers detected about a dozen nomad planets, using a technique called gravitational microlensing, which looks for stars whose light is momentarily refocused by the gravity of passing planets.
The research produced evidence that roughly two nomads exist for every typical, so-called main-sequence star in our galaxy. The new study estimates that nomads may be up to 50,000 times more common than that.
Science fiction authors have explored this idea for generations. In Balmer and Wylie's 1932 story When Worlds Collide, wandering worlds threaten humanity:
Bronson's calculations revealed to him that these wandering spheres would pass very close to the earth, make a circuit of our sun, and turn back toward space and infinity.
The same idea is seen in rogue planet from Poul Anderson's 1967 novel Satan's World and rogue world from George R.R. Martin's 1977 novel Dying of the Light.
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