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Wandering Planets Could Outnumber the Stars in Our Galaxy

In the depths of space, in vast expanses between stellar systems, solitary planets float around which there are no stars to orbit them. These isolated travelers are called evil planets, but we don’t really know how many of them are out there. Now, a new study suggests that NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope may be able to identify hundreds of these rogue planets, which can also outrun stars in our galaxy.

“The universe can be associated with evil planets and we wouldn’t even know it,” said Scott Gowdy, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. “We will never find out without a full trace, like Roman going to do space-based microlensing surveys.” The Romans would discover rogue planets in particular regions of space, and from this data, scientists could find out how many rogue planets could exist.

High-resolution depiction of a Roman spacecraft against a starry background. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Microlining is a technique in which astronomers use Roman-like telescopes to look at distant objects, the way light bends when an object passes between us and the target. This allows them to see distant stars using these intermediate objects like a magnifying glass.

Evil planets are usually difficult to spot because they are not near the source of light like a star. But the Romans would be able to detect them using microlining. “This gives us a window into these worlds that we don’t have,” Leiden Samson Johnson, a graduate student at Ohio State University, said in another statement. “Imagine our small rocky planet floating freely in space – that’s the mission that will help us find it.”

One debate around the evil planets is how they came alone – and whether they once orbited a star. Therefore studying them can help researchers to understand how planets and stellar systems are formed.

“As our view of the universe has expanded, we have realized that our solar system may be abnormal,” Johnson said in the statement. “We will help you learn more about how we fit into the cosmic scheme of things by studying evil planets.”

The findings are published in The Astronomical Journal.

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