Worlds Without Suns: Nomad Planets Could Number In The Quadrillions

Artist's concept of a free-floating Jupiter-like planet. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)


The concept of nomad planets has been featured before here on Universe Today, and for good reason. Not only is the idea of mysterious lone planets drifting sunless through interstellar space an intriguing one, but also the sheer potential quantity of such worlds is simply staggering. If some very well-respected scientists’ calculations are correct there are more nomad planets in our Milky Way galaxy than there are stars — a lot more. With estimates up to 100,000 nomad planets for every star in the galaxy, there could be literally quadrillions of wandering worlds out there, ranging in size from Pluto-sized to even larger than Jupiter.

That’s a lot of nomads. But where did they all come from?

Recently, The Kavli Foundation had a discussion with several scientists involved in nomad planet research. Roger D. Blandford, Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and Louis E. Strigari, Research Associate at KIPAC and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory talked about their findings and what sort of worlds these nomad planets might be, as well as how they may have formed.

One potential source for nomad planets is forceful ejection from solar systems.

“Most stars form in clusters, and around many stars there are protoplanetary disks of gas and dust in which planets form and then potentially get ejected in various ways,” said Strigari. “If these early-forming solar systems have a large number of planets down to the mass of Pluto, you can imagine that exchanges could be frequent.”

And the possibility of planetary formation outside of stellar disks is not entirely ruled out by the researchers — although they do impose a lower limit to the size of such worlds.

“Theoretical calculations say that probably the lowest-mass nomad planet that can form by that process is something around the mass of Jupiter,” said Strigari. “So we don’t expect that planets smaller than that are going to form independent of a developing solar system.”

“This is the big mystery that surrounds this new paper. How do these smaller nomad planets form?” Sasselov added.

Of course, without a sun of their own to supply heat and energy one might assume such worlds would be cold and inhospitable to life. But, as the researchers point out, that may not always be the case. A nomad planet’s internal heat could supply the necessary energy to fuel the emergence of life… or at least keep it going.

“If you imagine the Earth as it is today becoming a nomad planet… life on Earth is not going to cease,” said Sasselov. “That we know. It’s not even speculation at this point. …scientists already have identified a large number of microbes and even two types of nematodes that survive entirely on the heat that comes from inside the Earth.”

Researcher Roger Blandford also suggested that “small nomad planets could retain very dense, high-pressure ‘blankets’ around them. These could conceivably include molecular hydrogen atmospheres or possibly surface ice that would trap a lot of heat. They might be able to keep water liquid, which would be conducive to creating or sustaining life.”

And so with all these potentially life-sustaining planets knocking about the galaxy,  is it possible that they could have helped transport organisms from one solar system to another? It’s a concept called panspermia, and it’s been around since at least the 5th century BCE when the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first wrote about it. (We’ve written about it too, as recently as three weeks ago, and it’s still a much-debated topic.)

“In the 20th century, many eminent scientists have entertained the speculation that life propagated either in a directed, random or malicious way throughout the galaxy,” said Blandford. “One thing that I think modern astronomy might add to that is clear evidence that many galaxies collide and spray material out into intergalactic space. So life can propagate between galaxies too, in principle.

There could be quadrillions of nomad planets in our galaxy alone -- and they could even be ejected into intergalactic space. (Image: ESO/S.Brunier)

“And so it’s a very old speculation, but it’s a perfectly reasonable idea and one that is becoming more accessible to scientific investigation.”

Nomad planets may not even be limited to the confines of the Milky Way. Given enough of a push, they could be sent out of the galaxy entirely.

“Just a stellar or black hole encounter within the galaxy can, in principle, give a planet the escape velocity it needs to be ejected from the galaxy. If you look at galaxies at large, collisions between them leads a lot of material being cast out into intergalactic space,” Blandford said.

The discussion is a fascinating one and can be found in its entirety on The Kavli Foundation’s site here, and watch a recorded interview between Louis Strigari and journalist Bruce Lieberman here.

The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, is dedicated to the goals of advancing science for the benefit of humanity and promoting increased public understanding and support for scientists and their work.

Rogue Planets Could Drive By And Scoop Up Life

Artist's rendering of an Earth-sized rogue planet approaching a star. Credit: Christine Pulliam (CfA)


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.

Earth Could Spread Life Across The Milky Way

Panspermia Illustration Courtesy of Wikipedia


Most of us are familiar with the concept of panspermia – where living organisms can be “seeded” from comet or asteroid impacts – but where does the life-giving content come from? According to a research group led by Mauricio Reyes-Ruiz from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, it just might come from Earth.

Inspired by the discovery of Moon and Mars rocks found on Earth from meteor strikes, the team began computer modeling of what might happen if pieces of Earth were transported across the Solar System via a collision scenario. The simulation involved 10,000 Earth particles moving over a period of 30,000 years. The amount of matter is tiny compared to the bulk our planet and it’s a blink of the eye in cosmic time, but scientists theorize that extreme lifeforms might be able to exist that long in space.

“The collision probability is greater than previously reported,” said Reyes-Ruiz. “It has been suggested that the ejection to interplanetary space of terrestrial crustal material, accelerated in a large impact, may result in the interchange of biological material between Earth and other Solar System bodies”

Could pieces of Earth really reach other planets? According to older theories, chances were good that some might reach the Moon or Venus, but gravity from the Sun and Earth makes reaching Mars improbable. However, the new simulations show a Mars impact – and even Jupiter – to be probable with the right ejection speeds. By involving slightly more particles at five times the rate of motion, the new results show the particles could even go beyond the Solar System. Oddly enough, the faster they moved, the lesser their chances of encountering the Moon and Venus became. Of the 10,242 tested, 691 particles ‘escaped’ out of the Solar System entirely, and six landed on Jupiter itself. Is this a Neil Young vision of flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home?

Chris Shepherd of the Institute of Physics in London, who was not involved in the study, might agree with this conclusion. “This is an intriguing piece of work. The team have mapped out a really interesting scenario,” he said. One possible collision zone is Europa, the moon of Jupiter, and while the team did not simulate the number of particles that would specifically land there, many astronomers believe that it contains a large ocean, and could therefore support life.”

Original Story Source: Cosmos Magazine News Release. For Further Study: Dynamics of escaping Earth ejecta and their collision probability with different Solar System bodies.

Claim of Alien Life in Meteorites Needs Further Review

Image of permineralized remains in the one of the meteorites studied by Richard Hoover. Credit: Journal of Cosmology


A recent paper published by a NASA scientist claims the discovery evidence of fossil bacteria in a rare subclass of carbonaceous meteorite. The claims are extraordinary, and were the paper published somewhere other than the Journal of Cosmology, (and given an “exclusive preview” on Fox News) more people might be taking this seriously. But, even so, the topic went viral over the weekend.

Titled “Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites” and written by NASA scientist Dr. Richard Hoover of the Marshall Space Flight Center, the paper makes the bold claim that meteorites found in France and Tanzania in the 1800s (the Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil CI1 meteorites) have clear evidence pointing to space-dwelling microbes, with inferences of panspermia — the theory that microbes brought to Earth in comets and meteorites could have started life on our planet. “The implications,” says an online synopsis of the paper, “are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.”

The paper states: “Filaments found in the CI1 meteorites have also been detected that exhibit structures consistent with the specialized cells and structures used by cyanobacteria for reproduction (baeocytes, akinetes and hormogonia), nitrogen fixation (basal, intercalary or apical heterocysts) and attachment or motility (fimbriae).”

Dr. Chris McKay, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, pointed out to Universe Today that Hoover’s claims are “extraordinary, because of the ecological setting implied. Cyanobacteria live in liquid water and are photosynthetic.”

McKay said finding heterocysts (cells formed by some filamentous cyanobacteria) would certainly be indicative of life from an actively thriving environment. “The implication of these results is that the meteorite hosted a liquid water environment in contact with sunlight and high oxygen,” he told Universe Today in an email.

Several scientists from various fields have written commentaries on this, (see astronomer Phil Plait’s take, biologist PZ Myers (from my alma mater) and microbiologist Rosie Redfield (who refuted the “arsenic life” finding late last year), and there’s tons more about this available, and Alan Boyle at MSNBC’c Cosmic Log is keeping a running update) but everyone seems to agree that verifying that the structures — rods and spheres seen in rock — are actually fossilized bacteria is very difficult to do.

Image at 1000 X of multiple filaments and sheaths embedded in Orgueil meteorite. Credit: Journal of Cosmology

There have been previous reports of bacteria in meteorites, but most have turned out to be contamination or misunderstanding of the microscopic structures within rocks (remember the Alan Hills Meteorite claim from 1996 –which is still widely controversial.) It turns out that Dr. Hoover has reported fossil bacteria previously, but none have actually been proven. And, it also turns out that Hoover’s paper was submitted to the Astrobiology Journal in 2007, but the review was never completed.

“Richard Hoover is a careful and accomplished microscopist so there is every reason to believe that the structures he sees are present and are not due to contamination,” McKay said. “If these structures had been reported from sediments from a lake bottom there would be no question that they were classified correctly as biological remains.”

There are two possibilities, McKay said. “One, the structures are not biological but are chance shapes. In a millimeter square area of meteorite there are million possible 1 micron squares. Perhaps any diversity of shapes can be found if searching is extensive.”

Or the second possibility, McKay said is that “the environments on meteorites are, or were, radically different from what we would expect. There are suggestions for how meteorite parent bodies could have sustained interior liquid water. But not in a way that could have the liquid water exposed to sunlight. It also seems unlikely that high oxygen concentrations would be implied.”

There’s also the question of why Hoover would choose to publish in the somewhat dubious Journal of Cosmology, an open access, but supposedly peer-reviewed online journal, which has come under fire for errors found in some of their articles, and for the rather sensational claims made by some of the papers published within.

But word also was released by the Journal of Cosmology that they will cease publication in May 2011. In a press release titled, “Journal of Cosmology To Stop Publishing–Killed by Thieves and Crooks,” (posted by journalist David Dobbs), the press release said that the “JOC threatened the status quo at NASA,” and that “JOC’s success posed a direct threat to traditional subscription based science periodicals, such as “science” magazine; just as online news killed many newspapers. Not surprisingly, JOC was targeted by science magazine and others who engaged in illegal, criminal, anti-competitive acts to prevent JOC from distributing news about its online editions and books.”

UPDATE: NASA has released a statement on Hoover’s paper, saying that “NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper.” – Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington

But Hoover’s work is generating a huge buzz.

The journal’s editor in chief, Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said Hoover is a “highly respected scientist and astrobiologist with a prestigious record of accomplishment at NASA. Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis.”

“No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published,” Schild added. Those commentaries will be published March 7 through March 10, and can be found here.

Certainly, further review of Hoover’s work needs to be conducted.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Necropanspermia

A new instrument called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (STEG) is being developed to find evidence of life on other worlds. Credit: NASA/Jenny Mottor


The idea that a tiny organism could hitchhike aboard a mote of space dust and cross vast stretches of space and time until it landed and took up residence on the early Earth does seem a bit implausible. More likely any such organisms would have been long dead by the time they reached Earth. But… might those long dead alien carcasses still have provided the genomic template that kick started life on Earth? Welcome to necropanspermia.

Panspermia, the theory that life originated somewhere else in the universe and was then transported to Earth requires some consideration of where that somewhere else might be. As far as the solar system is concerned – the most likely candidate site for the spontaneous formation of a water-solvent carbon-based replicator is… well, Earth. And, since all the planets are of a similar age, the only obvious reason to appeal to the notion that life must have spontaneously formed somewhere else, is if a much longer time span than was available in the early solar system is required.

Opinions vary, but Earth may have offered a reasonably stable and watery environment from about 4.3 billion years until 3.8 billion years ago – which is about when the first evidence of life becomes apparent in the fossil record. This represents a good half billion years for some kind of primitive chemical replicator to evolve into a self-contained microorganism capable of metabolic energy production and capable of building another self-contained microorganism.

Half a billion years sounds like a generous amount of time – although with only one example to go by, who knows what a generous amount of time really is. Wesson (below) argues that it is not enough time – referring to other researchers who calculate that random molecular interactions over half a billion years would only produce about 194 bits of information – while a typical virus genome carries 120,000 bits – and an E. coli bacterial genome carries about 6 million bits.

A counter argument to this is that any level of replication in a environment with limited raw materials favors those entities that are most efficient at replication – and continues to do so generation after generation – which means it very quickly ceases to be an environment of random molecular interactions.

Put the term panspermia in a search engineand you get (left) ALH84001, a meteorite from Mars which has some funny looking structures which may just be mineral deposits; and (right) a tardigrade - a totally terrestrial organism that can endure high levels of radiation, desiccation and near vacuum conditions - although it much prefers to live in wet moss. Credit: NASA

The mechanism through which a dead alien genome usefully became the information template for further organic replication on Earth is not described in detail and the case for necropanspermia is not immediately compelling.

The theory still requires that the early Earth was ideally primed and ripe for seeding – with a gently warmed cocktail of organic compounds, shaken-but-not-stirred, beneath a protective atmosphere and a magnetosphere. Under these circumstances, the establishment of a primeval replicator through a fortuitous conjunction of organic compounds remains quite plausible. It is not clear that we need to appeal to the arrival of a dead interstellar virus to kick start the world as we know it.

Further reading: Wesson, P. Panspermia, past and present: Astrophysical and Biophysical Conditions for the Dissemination of Life in Space.