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How Do Planets Go Rogue?

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Posted January 27, 2015

Some times planets just head off into the mysterious Universe all on their own, without a star to orbit. How and why do planets go rogue like this?

Artist’s rendering of an Earth-sized rogue planet approaching a star. Credit: Christine Pulliam (CfA)

Artist’s rendering of an Earth-sized rogue planet approaching a star. Credit: Christine Pulliam (CfA)

We’re accustomed to thinking about solar systems as places of order. All the planets orbit their parent star, everything is neatly arranged in ellipses and rings. Even the asteroid belt has division lines of dry and icy. Planets do what they’re told: orbit that star until the end of time. No Pluto, you may not go outside and play with the other planets. You’ll spend your lunch hour in detention with Haumea until we decide what we’re going to do with you for not cleaning up your play area.

Some planets just can’t be held down. They’re the Jimmy Deans, the greasers, the Marlon Brandos, the Cool Hand Lukes. They break all the laws and play by their own set of rules. They’re a rolling stone, baby. To ask them to settle down would just be to deny their nature. So instead of orbiting a star, they go rogue and fly off into the Milky Way, possibly seeking fame, fortune and adventure, but keeping to the beat of their own drummer.

A rogue planet is any planet that doesn’t orbit a star. Instead of being a member of a solar system, it orbits the Milky Way on its own. Or in the case of really deviant planets, it’s been ejected out of the Milky Way entirely. Make no mistake, this is not a small condition affecting a few planets. It’s estimated that there are billions of rogue planets out there in the Milky Way.

How does this happen? How can we get rogue planets? Is it the way they were raised? Something that happened in the way they were born? Some rogue planets started out as part of a solar system, and then something happened. Some event “kicked” them out into deep space. You could get a collision or near miss with another star, or even a black hole. As two stars pass one another, their gravitational interactions can cause all kinds of mayhem to a nice orderly orbital system. Planets can be kicked into higher or lower orbits, smashed into stars or flung out with an escape velocity that means they’ll never orbit their star again.

This artist’s conception illustrates what a “hot jupiter” might look like.

This artist’s conception illustrates what a “hot jupiter” might look like.

Planets can also escape when their star disappears. Sounds impossible? Sometimes stars go out for cigarettes and just never come back. When a massive star detonates as a supernova, the force of the explosion can eject planets at tremendous velocities away from the former star, flinging those billiard balls all over the hall. But the vast majority of rogue planets probably formed early on in their solar systems. Things were rough and chaotic back then, with planets smashing into each other with all kinds of near misses. These interactions could bully out smaller neighbors with not so much as a nod. Jupiter, I’m looking at you.

It’s also possible that planets could form as orphans, within a solar nebula, away from a star entirely. If a pocket of hydrogen collects together into a sphere, but it doesn’t have enough mass to actually ignite as a star, it’s another type of rogue planet. We’ll just pretend these ones were raised by Nuns.

What would it be like for these planets? Without the light from a star, these would be incredibly cold places. This isn’t just sad metaphor. The outer layers, exposed to space would be as cold as interstellar space, just a handful of degrees above absolute zero.But deep down below the surface, there would still be leftover heat from their formation, so it’s possible that life could survive down there, kept alive within a warm cocoon.

And who knows, maybe after billions of years, a rogue planet could get captured by a star again, and thawed out. It might get a second chance, or it could all end tragically, racing for pinks along the Devil’s elbow out past the Pillars of Creation. There are many ways that planets can go rogue, in fact, it’s possible that there are more starless planets in the Milky Way than there are stars.

So what do you think? Should we set sail from the Sun, and seek out adventure in the Milky Way?

Source: Universe Today, written by Fraser Cain

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