There may be billions of ‘rogue’ drifting planets, not bound to any stars

New research suggests that there may be billions of planets just drifting in our galaxy (Milky Way), not bound to any stars. Unlike planets in a solar system, these ‘rogue’ planets are free-floating and are not in any fixed orbit around a star.

Because these rogue planets are not bound to any star, there is scarce light present to reflect off and illuminate these celestial bodies. astronomer Scott Gaudi from Ohio State University says that “the universe could be teeming with rogue planets and we wouldn’t even know it.”

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However, NASA believes that it can count these hiding planets. A new NASA mission called the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope aims to do just that, with an expected launch sometime in the coming years. The $4 billion telescope has a new optical system that is expected to provide a field of view 100 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Roman Telescope will hopefully bring a new generation of space surveying with its advanced optical technology. A study conducted by a team at Ohio State University predicts that the Roman Telescope will be able to detect these free-floating planetary-mass objects (FFPs) with 10 times greater capability than existing space surveying technology.

“This gives us a window into these worlds that we would otherwise not have,” says, Samson Johnson, a graduate student at OSU and also lead study author. “There have been several rogue planets discovered, but to actually get a complete picture, our best bet is something like Roman. This is a totally new frontier.”

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The high-accuracy observation of these FFPs is possible due to a technique called gravitational microlensing. As there is very little light around these planets, this technique observes light that is magnified due to the warping of light from a distant star via gravitational forces (such as planets). Though gravitational microlensing is a decades old technique, the Roman Telescope is expected to take that capability multiple times further.

“The microlensing signal from a rogue planet only lasts between a few hours and a couple of days and then is gone forever,” says astrophysicist Matthew Penny from Louisiana State University. “This makes them difficult to observe from Earth, even with multiple telescopes. Roman is a game-changer for rogue planet searches.”

The Roman Telescope is targeted for a 2025 launch.

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