Fewer big rogue planets roam the galaxy, recount shows

New estimate of wandering Jupiter-mass worlds better matches ideas of how planets become orphans

microlensing illustration

QUICK FLASH  The light from a distant star may temporarily brighten when a free-floating planet passes in front of the star. This artist’s illustration shows how a rogue planet’s gravity distorts and focuses distant starlight as a ring around the planet.

J. Skowron/Warsaw Univ. Observatory

Big, rogue planets — ones without parent stars — are rare.

A new census of free-floating Jupiter-mass planets determined that these worlds are a tenth as common as previous estimates suggested. The results appear online July 24 in Nature.

Planets can go rogue in two ways: They can get kicked out of their parent planetary systems or form when a ball of gas and dust collapses (SN: 4/4/15, p. 22).

In the new study, Przemek Mróz of the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw and colleagues estimated the number of large, rogue planets in our galaxy using a technique called microlensing. When an object with a mass of a planet passes in front of a distant, background star, the gravity of the planet acts as a gravitational magnifying glass. It distorts and focuses the light, giving up the planet’s existence.

Mróz and colleagues looked at 2,617 microlensing events recorded between 2010 and 2015 and determined which were caused by a rogue planet. For every typical star, called main sequence stars, there are 0.25 free-floating Jupiter-mass planets, the analysis suggests.

The new result sharply contrasts an estimate published in 2011, which suggested that rogue Jupiters are almost twice as common as main sequence stars. About 90 percent of stars in the universe are main sequence stars, so if that estimate were accurate, there should be a lot of free-floating Jupiters.

“That result changed our conceptual framework of the universe just a little bit,” says astronomer Michael Liu of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. It challenged long-held ideas about how planets go rogue because the known methods wouldn’t generate enough planets to account for all the wanderers.

The 2011 result was based on a relatively small sample of microlensing events, only 474. Since then, infrared telescope images haven’t detected as many free-floating planets as expected. “Over the years, serious doubts were cast over the claims of a large population of Jupiter-mass free-floaters,” Mróz says.

David Bennett, coauthor of the 2011 study, agrees that the new census failed to find evidence for a large population of Jupiter-mass rogue planets. He notes, however, that the new data do reveal four times as many Jupiter-mass failed stars called brown dwarfs than predicted in the original census. So some of the rogues that were originally classified as planets may, in fact, be failed stars. Bennett, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and colleagues are working on a new analysis of potential rogues with nearly 3,000 microlensing events and plan to compare their results with those from the new census.

Liu says the latest census is much more in line with theories of how planets form. Most rogues should be Earth-mass or a little heavier. Those lighter planets get tossed out of their planetary systems much easier than behemoths like Jupiter. Still, the smaller planets are harder to detect.

The new microlensing analysis did identify several events in which stars brightened and dimmed in less than half a day. Such short events hint at the existence of Earth-mass free-floaters because smaller planets with less gravity should brighten a distant star more briefly than more massive stars. Determining whether those small planets are really rogue and counting how many there are will take better telescopes, the team notes.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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