NASA Set to Prove Whether Rogue Planets Outnumber Stars

This artist’s conception illustrates a Jupiter-like planet alone in the dark of space, floating freely without a parent star. Astronomers recently uncovered evidence of 10 such lone worlds, thought to have been “booted,” or ejected, from developing solar systems. (Credit: NASA)

(CN) — Rogue planets, celestial bodies that free-float in space without being gravitationally tethered to a sun, may be so widespread that they actually outnumber the stars in the Milky Way, according to a new theory published Friday.

Of the seemingly countless objects and phenomena residing in outer space that have captured the curiosity of astrophysicists and astronomers, arguably one of the least well-understood are rogue planets. 

These isolated bodies drifting around space without a star’s gravitational pull have left researchers stumped for years, given that there are numerous unanswered questions over how the planets were formed and came to operate in the cosmos without a sun.

Spurred on by the riddles surrounding the origins of these celestial lone wolves, NASA announced a new telescope mission that will seek to compile a census on how many of these rogue planets exist in the Milky Way, and a study published in Astronomical Journal by Ohio State University researchers proposes a new theory on what we can expect to find.

Researchers theorize that once scientists undergo a rigorous data collection process for these rogue planets, we may uncover far more of them than researchers have previously anticipated. 

Astronomers go so far as to suggest that there may actually be so many of them that the final rogue planet count may exceed the number of stars in our galaxy — a count that has never been revealed to us prior to the upcoming NASA mission.

“This gives us a window into these worlds that we would otherwise not have,” said Samson Johnson, lead author of the study and astronomy graduate student at the university. “Imagine our little rocky planet just floating freely in space — that’s what this mission will help us find.”

The mission will be largely made possible by the new Roman telescope, honorably named after Nancy Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer and famed “Mother of Hubble” for her work on the Hubble telescope, as well as an advanced monitoring technique known as gravitational microlensing. 

With the telescope and technique paired together, researchers will be able to use the gravity from stars and planets to magnify light coming from the stars that pass from behind the telescope’s viewpoint. This essentially gives researchers the ability to see planets thousands of light-years away from Earth, a feat well beyond the capacity of other telescopes and techniques.

While other efforts and attempts have been made in the pursuit of discovering more rogue planets, researchers say that this new one will be 10 times more sensitive to the bodies, in part because the telescopes that have been previously looking for rogue planets have been based on Earth.

“There have been several rogue planets discovered, but to actually get a complete picture, our best bet is something like Roman,” Johnson said. “This is a totally new frontier.”

Researchers are hopeful that as this census on rogue planets is put together, it will help create a clearer picture on how exactly they came to form. While there are a handful of theories on this front, none have so far been confirmed.

One theory is that they formed not unlike a traditional planet bound to a sun, created in the gaseous disk around stars still in their younger years. After they formed, researchers suggest that they may later become dramatically — and perhaps violently — ejected from their orbit after a close encounter with a foreign object, such as with another planet in the same solar system.

Another theory suggests that they may form independently and on their own, cobbled together by little more than cosmic dust and gas like a star.

Researchers say that regardless which of these theories may eventually pan out, the Roman telescope has been specially configured to collect as much information as possible and to help determine the truth of rogue planets and their origins.

These discoveries, however, may come with one caveat that some could find disappointing: the rogue planets are almost certainly not likely to be inhabited by anything living. 

Because the planets are free-floating without the gravitational energy or warmth from a nearby star, the planets are expected to be extremely cold and not incredibly hospitable towards life. While the possibility cannot be completely ruled out, researchers suggest that you do not hold your breath.

These answers and others will hopefully become clearer when the mission officially launches sometime in the next five years.

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