Lonely Planets of the Cosmos

Scientists think free-floating planets — occasionally with moons — should exist in the cold depths of interstellar space, but without any sunlight they will be very difficult to find.
NASA
A brief letter in Nature was John Debes's inspiration. The 1999 piece, by David J. Stevenson (Caltech), proposed that planets with liquid water oceans — and even life — could exist in the cold, dark depths of interstellar space far from any star. Based on the knowledge that some fraction of planets must get gravitationally ejected from their systems during the systems' formation, the paper theorized that some of these ejected planets could, with enough internal heat, keep their atmospheres and stay warm enough to support liquid water below a thick frozen crust.

What might happen if such an outcast had a big moon? To find out, Debes (at the Carnegie Institution of Washington) ran 2,700 computer simulations based on an Earth-mass planet and a lunar-mass companion.

"The ejection process can be very intense," says Debes. "It wasn't clear to us if any bound systems would actually survive." But in 123 of the cases, or between 4 and 5 percent of the time, the "Earth-Moon" system did survive ejection from its solar system intact.

"Anytime something happens in astronomy a few percent of the time, it is interesting to us because on the grand scale of things, it means it's happening a lot and people should probably know about it," says Debes.

And these pairs have a better chance to harbor life, since the dissipation of tidal energy between the moon and the spinning planet causes the interior of the planet to warm. Debes' models predict that this heating would match what happened in Earth's case more than 4 billion years ago, when the young Moon was much closer and Earth was rotating faster.

In the October 20th Astrophysical Journal Letters, Debes and Steinn Sigurdsson write that the heating would likely be localized in hot spots of volcanism or other geothermal processes. Biologists are finding many examples on Earth of life surviving on these energy sources, such as at mid-ocean ridges. Could such "extremophiles" be the most common form of life in the universe?

The team's best-case scenario found that an ejected Earth-Moon system can sustain its heat for up to 250 million years — long enough for life to arise. But is it long enough for that life to adapt to the eventual decreasing temperatures?

And if dark, free-floating Earths exist, when will astronomers be able to detect one? It's not as impossible as you might think. Debes estimates the next generation of space-based microlensing surveys will have around a 2% chance.

2 thoughts on “Lonely Planets of the Cosmos

  1. Tomasz Kokowski

    Such scenario was described in at least one sci-fi story, however alone Earth instead of Earth-Moon duo was considered.

    I’m not so optimistic as simulations. In these models there are no references to climate factor of such alone planet, I guess. Internal heat of the ejected planet even boosted by dissipation of tidal energy is not only life sustaining force.

    In the other hand, could Earth be able to keep Moon on its today orbit without third-party gravitational players like inside of Solar System? It could be very difficult to keep orbiting body on place right to get enough boost of internal heat of the planet by tidal energy.

  2. John Debes

    Tomasz, If I understand your question, you’re asking whether the Earth and Moon require other planets to retain its current orbit. As far as I know, since the Moon is bound to the Earth gravitationally, any other body tends to make the system more unstable, rather than more stable. The Sun and other planets in the Solar System perturb the Moon’s orbit. Any ejected planet with a moon would most likely be quite stable, even as it evolved through tidal interactions. You’re right that other sources of energy might be present to help life along too.

Comments are closed.