Our understanding of how planets and solar systems work is about to undergo a major change with this newest discovery. It’s just not like we thought.
Astronomers in Japan and New Zealand have completed a survey of the celestial objects in a particular portion of our galaxy using optical telescopes have reached a shocking conclusion. According to the astronomers their survey was rather like a census – they counted specific objects in particular segments of the galaxy and used those numbers to calculate the total population of objects. The results are staggering.
The hard data revealed the presence of ten Jupiter-sized planets adrift without host stars. That data, when calculated out to the total number of celestial bodies in the galaxy, indicates that there are at least twice as many “orphan” planets as there are stars in the galaxy. The survey telescopes were unable to detect anything smaller than Jupiter-sized planets, which means there could be literally hundreds of millions of Earth-sized orphan planets adrift between the stars.
Where did all these loose planets come from? That answer, like everything else, is theoretical. Remember that our universe is old. For every star we see at night there have been a hundred that have lived and died. When a star dies it can either consume its planets in a nova or simply let go of them as its gravitational pull falters. These orphan globes could very well be the remnants of ancient solar systems, left to wander the galaxy after the death of their parent star.
Astronomers haven’t come up with a tool yet to determine if these planets might yet be orbiting far distant stars. That is a possibility, although, given the number and distribution, doesn’t seem likely.
These rogue Jupiters raises another question: What about our own gas giants? Did they form in our solar system, or are they captures, perhaps ancient, ancient denizens of some other solar system long failed? What does that say about Earth? Where did we come from?
Before we get too excited about visiting some of these cold, dark alien worlds, it is important to remember that most of them lie at least 10,000 light years away: it’s still a long ride, even to something less than a star.
You can read more about this fascinating, exciting discovery at NASA’s News site.