These really are lonely planets

By May 28, 2011

The issue: It must make life difficult for the prophets of doom; just as they predict the end of the world, the astronomers find more of them

In a discovery that should send science fiction writers racing to their keyboards, astronomers have discovered 10 potential planets, gas giants as large as Jupiter, just wandering through the farther reaches of the Milky Way, apparently un-tethered to any star.

THERE IS A possibility these planets could be in exceptionally wide orbits but astronomers think not. Having probably been ejected by some event in their original system, it is likely that they are following no orbit at all.

And these free-floating planets may be even more common than stars, perhaps twice as common, meaning there could more than 400 billion of them roaming through our galaxy.

And even more common may be planets closer to the size of Earth because, being smaller, they would be easier to expel from their original orbits. These smaller planets may even be habitable, absent the warmth of a star, because thick layers of greenhouse gases could retain heat.

WORKING WITH a team of astronomers in Japan and New Zealand, Notre Dame physicist David Bennett wrote the study that found the giant planets, in large part because they are massive enough to bend the light of the stars of which they pass in front.

In the more than a decade since the first ever planet outside of our solar system was detected, astronomers have identified more than 500 so-called exoplanets. And now we have free-range planets.

It must make life difficult for the prophets of doom. Just as they predict the end of the world, the astronomers find more of them.

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