Rogue Planets Could Drive By And Scoop Up Life

Article written: 10 May , 2012
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015


Free-floating “rogue” planets may occasionally dip into the inner Solar System, picking up dust containing organic compounds — a.k.a. the ingredients for life — and carry it back out into the galaxy, according to new research by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the University of Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology in the UK.

Rogue planets are thus called because they are not in orbit around a star. Either forcibly ejected from a solar system or having formed very early on in the Universe — even within a few million years after the Big Bang, the team proposes — these vagrant worlds may vastly outnumber stars. In fact, it’s been suggested there are as much as 100,000 times more rogue planets than stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone!

Read: Rogue Planets Can Find Homes Around Other Stars

Professor Wickramasinghe — a proponent of the panspermia hypothesis whereby the ingredients for life can be transported throughout the galaxy on dust, comets, and perhaps even planets — and his team have suggested in a paper published in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science that Earth-sized rogue planets could pass through the inner Solar System, possibly as often as once every 25 million years on average. Like a cosmic drive-thru these planets could gather zodiacal dust from the plane of the Solar System during their pass, thus picking up organic compounds along the way.

The planets would then take the material gathered from one solar system and possibly bring it into another, serving as a type of interstellar cross-pollinator.

Wickramasinghe’s team propose that, by this process, there could be more life-bearing, Earth-sized planets existing between the stars than orbiting around them — a lot more. Based on their estimates there may be as much as a few hundred thousand billion such worlds in our galaxy… that’s several thousand for every star.

It will be interesting to see how this idea is received, but it definitely is an intriguing concept. As we hunt for the “Holy Grail” of life-friendly exoplanets around other stars, they may be drifting through the darkness in number, hiding in the spaces between.

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52 Responses

  1. HughesKyle64 says

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  2. Do you have a link to the paper, or at least the abstract?

  3. The radius of our influence with other planets is age of radio x speed of light, i.e. about 100 light years. Via this method (or in fact bits of virus infected rock ejected into space by meteorite impacts) the radius of influence is speed of rock/planet x several billion years.

  4. Olaf2 says

    But here we assume that life is formed in the dust between the planets.
    Second these planets probably would be tiny since the planets in the solar system are pretty much orbiting in the same plane. These rough planets will most probably not enter in the plane of our solar system.

  5. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Nice try, but as always Wickramasinghe fails to get his presuppositions through.

    The planets that are potentially habitable will be mostly inhabited since the speed with which life established here shows it is an easy process. And btw, these biospheres will mostly not be successfully infected by us from impactors carrying cellular life et cetera, which will likely be Wickramasinghe’s next attempt since IIRC this is what he believes happens to Earth all the time.

    And the remaining worlds will not matter. Organics and chemical evolution is observed literary everywhere by spectroscopic methods, as well as sampling of the local system.

    I’m mostly not reading anything by Wickramasinghe as it is a waste of time. But this was, superficially at least, a somewhat plausible suggestion for once.

    • gopher652003 says

      The team that published this is filled with wackos:(. It annoys me that they (Wickramasinghe in-particular) get such uncritical representation on a science site (or, lately, “sciencish” site) like Universe Today.

    • Why always the negative mind set, why can’t anyone just accept the fact of the possibility of this instead of jumping off the bat and saying this is fallacy. This has long been known about rogue planets, I don’t see why it’s such a surprise that rogue planets could perhaps be orbiting our solar system, but in a much grander scale than what planets science knowns of that orbits our sun today.

      • Member
        squidgeny says

        why can’t anyone just accept the fact of the possibility of this instead of jumping off the bat and saying this is fallacy

        Because science isn’t about just accepting things, it’s about discussing ideas and pitting them against each other with a critical evaluation of the evidence.

      • Zach Ostendorf says

        We need to accept it as a POSSIBILITY, then look for evidence for or against it, discuss it and come up with a reasonable answer according to the evidence obtained.

      • gopher652003 says

        The problem is, Zach and Broc, that the main scientist who published this paper has been discredited for many years. The reason he thinks that there are hundreds of trillions of rogue planets in our galaxy is that he thinks that heavy elements formed in the immediate aftermath of the big bang via… magic I guess?

        He then takes this unproven conjecture and says “aha! If heavy elements weren’t formed primarily from stars, then planets must have formed before (or at the same time as) the first stars!”

        He’s a person who is highly imaginative (which is a good thing) but is unable to accept the possibility that he might be wrong (which is a bad thing). Suffice to say that his primary conjecture has been proven to be incorrect (heavy elements are now known to be formed via stellar fusion and supernovae, and thus planets must have formed from stellar debris fields), but he won’t let go of his old ideas.

      • Member
        Jeff Boerst says

        For the same reason not to accept Hoagland’s ideas: They are, to at least a decent degree, ridiculous.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        Actually what we need, to progress, is to accept that too low likelihoods are excluded as “rejected beyond reasonable doubt” as observation or theory.

        If we can’t tell what is erroneous based on too low probability, we can never hope to tell what is right based on exclusion.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        Sorry, this is all too unclear to me.

        – I responded to the possibility – I found it too low to matter.
        – I didn’t say it was a fallacy.
        – Nothing in this was specifically about orbiting planets. Though it is recently claimed possibility, rogue planets “system jumping”, and it would raise the likelihood of transpermia. But my analysis wasn’t dependent on the likelihood of transpermia.

    • JonHanford says

      This is just more nonsense in support of “hydro-gravitational-dynamics(HGD) cosmology” being pushed by Wickramasinghe, Schild and Gibson and published in “alternative” publications like the now-defunct J. of Cosmology(they were all on the editorial board, natch) and the Intl. J. of Astrobiology:

      That paper pretty much sums up where these guys are coming from wrt HGD and panspermia(btw, most published work by these guys pretty much looks the same, illustrations, text, etc.- rehashed stuff.)

      I find their oft-repeated claim of evidence for “primoridial planets and their (presumably) biologically generated dust” in the planetary nebula NGC 7293(aka Helix), um, extemely dubious. Just like their other claims of evidence of panspermia (e.g. Red Rain of Kerala was ET in nature, SARS came from outer space). Nonsense.

      • lcrowell says

        He was a protege of Hoyle, who managed to get nucleosynthesis right, but got most everything else wrong after then. Narlikar was a Hoyle student and he still hammers away on the steady state theory.

        What is hydro-gravitational dynamics?


      • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

        What is hydro-gravitational dynamics?

        I Google(d) it and found this and this; it sounds like hogwash to me.

      • JonHanford says

        Hydro-gravitational-dynamics cosmology is a cosmology originally proposed by physicist Carl Gibson based on fluid mechanical theory. Later, Rudolph Schild (a protoge of Halton Arp and proponent of several ATM theories himself) and Wickramasinghe began collaborating on refining HGD cosmology (this is when Hoyle and Wick’s panspermia/exolife ideas were incorporated into the theory).

        Basically, in HGD cosmology shortly after the BB, small planetary mass gaseous bodies formed and within the first million years coalesced into the first stars, inside so-called proto-globular clusters. These clusters of stars and planets quickly went on to form proto-galaxies and proto-galaxy clusters that evolved into the universe we see today.

        I’ll admit I find it hard to follow much of the published work due to the frequent use of idiosyncratic language and just poorly written papers. In addition to the links Ivan provided(and my previous link), below are two early papers by Gibson outlining HGD concepts:

      • lcrowell says

        It looks like an anti /-CDM program. It is probably not worth my time reading through it.


      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        Ouch. You prompted a memory – sure enough I have a (very dated; all that is not superseded is on the web) book of Narlikar in my remaining dead tree library. Now I know why it was so critical of the state of cosmology at the time.

        Turning the book, it is summarized by none other than deist and problematic astrobiology promoter Davies. Off to the round archive (paper recycling) with that one.

      • lcrowell says

        I picked up at a used book table back in the 80s a book by Hoyle and Narlikar “Action at a Distance in Physics and Cosmology.” It has some interesting ideas, in particular the application of propagators, even if the main thesis is wrong. I also met Narlikar at a conference some time back. He is an affable sort of individual, even if the talk he gave bordered on being ridiculous.

        The steady state model of the universe is clearly wrong. It can be seen by considering the thermodynamics of a black hole. Consider a system with a black hole in a cosmology, where the background temperature and the horizon temperature of the black hole are equal. The black hole then has equal probability for absorbing a quantum from the background or emitting a quantum by Hawking radiation to the background. If the black hole absorbs a quantum it becomes bigger, its entropy increases and temperature decreases. The probability for absorbing quantum from the background is now larger than emitting a quantum to the background. If the black hole emits a quantum it becomes smaller, its entropy decreases and temperature increases. The probability for emitting quantum to the background is now larger than absorbing a quantum from the background. The equal temperature condition in spacetime physics is not equilibrium, for the effective heat capacity of spacetime is negative. The same thing holds for a steady state cosmology. The smallest of quantum fluctuations will push it into a state more favorable to collapsing or runaway expansion. Given enough quantum fluctuations the cosmology will drift away from the steady state condition in a statistical drunkards walk.


  6. 100 000 times more? Then where are they? Given that prodigious number, there should be hundreds it these just between us and Proxima Centaury…

    By the way, if they are so numerous, rogue planets should have crossed the inner Solar System so often since 4.5MM years that the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars should have been disturbed much more than what we see today…

    I already hear those Nibiru weirdos quoting this articles.

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    • JonHanford says

      I had similar concerns wrt relatively frequent periodic *inner* solar system transits of rogue planets. In addition to orbital discrepancies in the orbits of inner solar system bodies, wouldn’t we see evidence of periodic “bombardment” episodes throughout the solar system due to perturbation of the Oort Cloud every 25-50 Myr from (say, for example, Neptune mass) planets moving through the inner solar system?

      “I already hear those Nibiru weirdos quoting this articles.” LOL. Nibiru bait, for sure.!

      • lcrowell says

        You can simulate this with this ” planet game”

        where you can send planets in to a solar system to see what happens. It is a bit tricky to get a stable planetary system with 6 planets or so.


      • I always lose my planets. Harder than it seems… based on that alone I have to think there’s a lot of tossed-out worlds out there…

      • lcrowell says

        The gravity coupling between the planets is a lot larger than what happens physically. That makes it rather tough. Also planets fromed from protoplanetary disks that clumped with resonance conditions.


      • k_sea says

        25 million years on average is actually 25,000 years on average. it’s part of our cycle 😉

  7. Ace says

    ‘When worlds collide’ by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer is a book about just this topic (sci-fi). Just read it and it’s quite okay 🙂

  8. done says

    could this be a reference to the sumerian tablets translation by sitchen? aka: NIBIRU?

  9. Wanderlust says

    Life prolly generates in the warm depth of a planet, deep crust, upper mantle, than slowly spreads to the rest of it. Steady heat source, lots of chemicals, volatiles. Wouldn’t be surprised (but so overjoyed) if rouge planets are filled with unique microbe biospheres.

  10. yaridanjo says

    There are a lot of brown dwarf stars with tiny planets around them out there. Eris and Pluto were planets of one such brown dwarf stars still in our solar system.

  11. lcrowell says

    There are clearly problems with this. For one thing there could not have been planets a few million years after the big bang. Baryonic matter was 75% hydrogen, 25% He^4 and about ,1% deuterium and trace amounts of lithium. It took large amounts of nuclear fusion from PopIII stars and then PopII stars to generate heavier elements. A million years after the big bang there were PopIII stars and their titanic energy outputs and explosions, but no planets.

    I also think the number of rogue planets must be exaggerated. A 10^5 times as many planets as stars would suggest the abundance of heavier elements is larger than known. This begins to put strain on our ideas of nucleosynthesis of elements.

    Rogue planets have been found and some statistics does indicate they are fairly abundant. These planets for most of the time are cold, about 30K in the galaxy. This is not conducive to life. Of course maybe life of some form might exist in the warmer interior. If so it is more likely a rogue planet with a geyser or massive volcano might send biological samples into solar systems, than visa versa. The problem is that even if organic material in the solar system or even microbes from Earth were to arrive on this planet conditions would become very cold and not likely able to support that life or have any type of abiogenesis on it surface. If that happens on these rogue planets it must be in the deep crust or asthenosphere.


  12. HeadAroundU says

    Jason, why are you sciencish? 🙂 What have you fallen from heaven? 🙂

    • If you notice I tend to write what the researchers state, not that what they state is necessarily true. Topics like this are part of the process of science… even if science one day (even one day soon) dismisses them as not true, they keep the fires burning, so to speak. As evidenced in all the discussion here, I’d say.

      • gopher652003 says

        The conjecture that all this is based upon (planet formation before stars) has *already* been proven false. So you breathlessly and uncritically reported on something known to be incorrect. That is the problem.

      • The idea here is that rogue planets can drift into solar systems like ours and pick up zodiacal dust. Now whether that material contains organic compounds and could “seed” a visiting world with the building blocks of life depend on your stance with Wickramsinghe as to how much organic stuff is out there, and whether it can get onto a visiting world at all, and then if it can “do” anything once it’s there. The presence of the rogue (or nomad) planets has been discussed before, and it seems that it’s agreed that they are out there in the galaxy in great numbers. Even if they can’t develop before stars (which doesn’t seem plausible to me either) they can get kicked out of solar systems — I know, I played the game too. Lost all my planets pretty quickly.

  13. SJStar says

    “In fact, it’s been suggested there are as much as 100,000 times more rogue planets than stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone!”

    A presumed fact shrouded in another unproven fact doesn’t make it true, now does it? Equally true is;

    “In fact, it’s been suggested there are as much as 0 times more rogue planets than stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone!”

    Panspermia is still a likely illusion. The only singular place we do only know of the existence of life is here on the Earth.

  14. bfmorris says

    If anything, the view that these planets could be couriers of frozen materials rather than places where abiogenesis could occur, is interesting. Would these rogue planets have magnetic fields to protect their frozen cargo from radiation?

    Perhaps the rogue planet is struck by space rocks upon entering a solar system and releases biological samples in the mess.

    • Ray Fowler says

      There are several unfounded assumptions underlying this theory.

      The first assumption is that these bodies are numerous enough to actually pass within the inner planetary systems of multiple stars.

      The second is that these systems have organic material floating around, waiting to be harvested by these rogue planets.

      The third is that these planets drifting through the deep cold of interstellar space (10-15 kelvins) can serve as a breeding ground for prebiotic chemistry.

      And finally, that any organic molecules improbably formed on these planets would somehow be ejected, “seeding” other planets as they pass through systems.

      Think about it. If there are actually 100,000 of these planets per star system, and a star system sees one every 25 million years, than that means a rogue planet passes through a star system every 2.5 trillion years, on average.

      How could a planet that passes through a star system every 2.5 trillion years possibly serve as a vehicle for panspermia, EVEN IF all of the other underlying assumptions were proven?

      This is why my woo detector went off.

  15. Prima Bara says

    Didn’t we once believe the world was flat?

    • Once i believe that the real universe is inside earth.. what does that called? I remember.. Hollow Earth hypothesis.. we send the probe outside Earth, the probe see us (maybe the martians also), therefore the world (or Earth?) doesn’t flat at all.

  16. Ray Fowler says

    Every once in a while something on UT sets off my woo detector. Maybe it’s a false positive.

  17. Your (Wickramasinghe) argument is invalid.

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