NOORDWIJK, THE NETHERLANDS — Life might arise in the darkest of places: the moon of a planet wandering the galaxy without a star.
The gravitational tug-of-war between a moon and its planet can keep certain satellites toasty enough for liquid water to exist there — a condition widely considered crucial for life. Now computer simulations suggest that, given the right orbit and atmosphere, some moons orbiting rogue planets can stay warm for over a billion years, astrophysicist Giulia Roccetti reported March 23 at the PLANET-ESLAB 2023 Symposium. She and her colleagues also report their findings March 20 in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
“There might be many places in the universe where habitable conditions can be present,” says Roccetti, of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany. But life presumably also needs long-term stability. “What we are looking for is places where these habitable conditions can be sustained for hundreds of millions, or billions, of years.”
Habitability and stability don’t necessarily need to come from a nearby sun. Astronomers have spotted about 100 starless planets, some possibly formed from gas and dust clouds the way stars form, others probably ejected from their home solar systems (SN: 7/24/17). Computer simulations suggest that there may be as many of these free-floating planets as there are stars in the galaxy.
Such orphaned planets might also have moons — and in 2021, researchers calculated that these moons need not be cold and barren places.
Unless a moon’s orbit is a perfect circle, the gravitational pull of its planet continually deforms it. Resulting friction inside the moon generates heat. In our own solar system, this process plays out on moons such as Saturn’s Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa (SN: 11/6/17; SN: 8/6/20). A sufficiently thick, heat-trapping atmosphere, likely one dominated by carbon dioxide, might then keep the surface warm enough for water to remain liquid. That water could come from chemical reactions with the carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the atmosphere, initiated by the impact of high-speed charged particles from space.
But such a moon won’t stay warm forever. The same gravitational forces that heat it up also mold its orbit into a circle. Gradually, the ebb and flow of gravity felt by the moon deforms it less and less, and the supply of frictional heat dwindles.
In the new study, Roccetti and her colleagues ran 8,000 computer simulations of a sunlike star with three Jupiter-sized planets. These simulations showed that planets that are ejected from their solar system will often sail off into space with their moons in tow.
The team then ran simulations of those moons, assumed to be the size of Earth, whizzing around their planets along the orbit they ended up with during the ejection. The goal was to see if gravitational heating occurred and if it lasted long enough for life to potentially originate there. Earth may have become habitable within a few hundred million years, although the earliest evidence of living organisms here date to about 1 billion years after the planet formed (SN: 1/26/18).
Because an atmosphere is crucial to heat retention, the team did their calculations with three alternatives. For moons with an atmosphere the same pressure as Earth’s, the period of potential habitability lasted at most about 50 million years, the team found. But it can last nearly 300 million years if the atmospheric pressure is 10 times that of Earth, and for about 1.6 billion years at pressures 10 times greater still. That amount of pressure may sound extreme, but it’s close to conditions on the similarly sized Venus.
Warmth and water might not be enough to let living organisms appear, though. Moons of free-floating planets “will not be the most favorable places for life to arise,” says astrophysicist Alex Teachey, of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics in Taipei, Taiwan.
“I think stars, due to their incredible power output and their longevity, are going to be far better sources of energy for life,” says Teachey, who studies the moons of exoplanets. “A big open question … is whether you can even start life in a place like Europa or Enceladus, even if the conditions are right to sustain life, because you don’t have, for example, solar radiation that can help along the process of mutation for evolution.”
But Roccetti — although not an astrobiologist herself — thinks moons of orphan planets have a few important advantages. They will have some, but not too much, water, which many astrobiologists think is a better starting point for life than, say, an ocean world. And not having a star nearby means there are no solar flares, which in many cases will destroy the atmosphere of an otherwise promising planet.
“There are many environments in our universe which are very different from what we have here on Earth,” she says, “and it is important to investigate all of them.”