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Orphan planets have been the subject of science fiction, appearing in Star Wars and Doctor Who, but although theorists have speculated on their existence, this is the first time their existence has been demonstrated.
The findings, published today in the international scientific journal Nature, were made using software developed by Massey University computer scientist and astrophysicist Ian Bond.
He led the team that discovered 10 giant free-floating gas planets believed not to be orbiting stars. "They're giant planets in our galaxy, around the size of Jupiter and somewhere between us and those distant background stars."
The planets are believed to be about two-thirds of the way to the centre of the galaxy, which is about 25,000 light years away.
"It's a big deal. It's like finding a needle in a haystack – the sense of discovery is hugely exciting," Dr Bond said.
The discovery raised the possibility that smaller, Earth-sized free-floating planets are yet to be detected and that such planets could support life.
If the planets could be viewed by the naked eye, Dr Bond said they would be pitch black, as they emitted no light.
The discovery has won plaudits from the international scientific community. Joachim Wambsganss, of Heidelberg University's Astronomy Research Institute, said the implications were profound and more research was needed.
Dr Bond and the team behind the discovery believe the orphan planets could have been ejected from a solar system because of close gravitational encounters with other planets or stars.
"Some might go into another orbit; some might get ejected out."
Alternatively, they could have grown from collapsing balls of gas and dust, but without the mass to ignite their nuclear fuel and produce their own starlight.
The discovery team involved researchers from Massey, Auckland, Canterbury and Victoria universities, as well as from Japan and the United States.
The group is part of the Moa – microlensing observations in astrophysics – study, which uses a microlensing telescope at Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo.
"This is an amazing result, and if it's right, the implications for planet formation are profound," says astronomer Debra Fischer at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
A rogue planet (also known as an interstellar planet, or orphan planet) is a planetary-mass object that has been ejected from its system and is no longer gravitationally bound to any star, brown dwarf or other such object, and that therefore orbits the galaxy directly.
This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary References, Supplementary Figures 1-11 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-3.
Originally posted by Illustronic
The easy one is the leap from rogue gas giant planets discovered could lead to life on earth-like rogue planets. That's a total leap of unsupported data and logic.
Originally posted by OrionHunterX
Free floating planets? They are more likely to be giant planet sized alien spaceships! I mean according to celestial mechanics, it would be almost impossible for planets to escape the gravitational pull of the host star around which they have been orbiting for eons!
And even if they do, they would not be able to leave the combined gravitational pull of the star system in which they were residing unless there was a greater pull from something else outside the system. So whats pulling them away?
But spaceships the size of Jupiter? Impossible to even imagine this at our technological levels. But then it may not be too far fetched to assume that extremely advanced Type III civilizations millions if not billions of years ahead of us in technology have discovered ways to move entire planets from their systems and used as vast spaceships to explore the universe!
Sci-fi today. Reality tomorrow!
The newly discovered rogue planets may have formed close to a host star, then been ejected from their solar systems by the gravitational influence of a huge neighbor planet, researchers said. Indeed, such planet-planet interactions are thought to be responsible for the odd, extremely close-in orbits of the giant alien planets known as “hot Jupiters.”
But the abundance of the seemingly starless worlds may force astronomers to rethink some of their ideas about planet formation, according to Sumi.
The “current most recognized planetary formation theory (core accretion model) cannot create so many giant planets,” Sumi told SPACE.com in an email interview. “So we need a different theory to create [so] many giant planets, such [as the] gravitational instability model.”
In the core accretion model, dust coalesces to form a solid core, which later accretes gas around it, creating a planet. The gravitational instability model invokes the rapid collapse of gas, with a core forming later due to sedimentation.