From Centauri Dreams:
Because of my fascination with exotic venues for astrobiology, I’ve always enjoyed Karl Schroeder’s novels. The Canadian writer explored brown dwarf planets as future venues for human settlement in Permanence (2002), and in his new book Lockstep (soon to be published by Tor, currently being serialized in Analog), Schroeder looks at ‘rogue’ planets, worlds that move through the galaxy without a central star. Imagine crimson worlds baked by cosmic radiation, their surfaces building up, over the aeons, the rust red complex organic molecules called tholins. Or consider gas giants long ago ejected from the system that gave them birth by close encounters with other worlds.
Objects like these and more are surely out there given what we know about gravitational interactions within planetary systems, and they’re probably out there in huge numbers. I’m not going to review how Lockstep uses them just yet — in any case, I haven’t finished the book — but we’ll return to its ingenious solution to time and distance problems in a future post. Right now I just want to mention that one of Schroeder’s characters muses upon ‘a hundred thousand nomad planets for every star in the galaxy.’ Now that’s some serious real estate.
If the number sounds like a novelistic exaggeration, it’s nonetheless drawn from recent work. Schroeder is invoking the work of Louis Strigari (Stanford University), who has studied the possibilities not only of planets ejected from their own systems but those that may form directly from a molecular cloud. The figure of 105 free-floating planetary objects for every main sequence star is from a 2012 paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (you can read more about Strigari’s ideas in ‘Island-Hopping’ to the Stars).
Rogue planets would be tricky to find but gravitational microlensing should help us set constraints on their actual numbers, and as we’ll see below, direct imaging has its uses. If rogue worlds are available in such quantities, we can imagine a starfaring culture capable of exploiting their resources. We can even speculate that a thick atmosphere that can trap infrared heat coupled with tectonic or radioactive heat sources from within could sustain elemental forms of life even in the absence of a star. Tens of thousands of objects in nearby interstellar space would obviously be a spur for exploration.
A Newly Found Orphan World
Eighty light years from Earth floats a solitary planet that has been discovered through its heat signature in data collected by the Pan-STARRS 1 wide-field survey telescope on Maui. In mass, color, and energy output, the world is similar to directly imaged planets. As you might expect, PSO J318.5-22, a gas giant about six times the mass of Jupiter, turned up during a search for brown dwarfs, delving into the datasets of a survey that has already produced about 4000 terabytes of information. The discovery was then followed up through multiple observations by equipment on nearby Mauna Kea, with spectra from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and the Gemini North Telescope indicating the young, low-mass object was not a brown dwarf.
Image: Multicolor image from the Pan-STARRS1 telescope of the free-floating planet PSO J318.5-22, in the constellation of Capricornus. The planet is extremely cold and faint, about 100 billion times fainter in optical light than the planet Venus. Most of its energy is emitted at infrared wavelengths. The image is 125 arcseconds on a side. Credit: N. Metcalfe & Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium.
“We have never before seen an object free-floating in space that that looks like this. It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone,” explained team leader Dr. Michael Liu of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “I had often wondered if such solitary objects exist, and now we know they do.”
The find is interesting on a number of levels, not least of which is that observations of gas giant planets around young stars have shown that their spectra differ from those of L- and T-class brown dwarfs. Young planets like these, according to the paper on this work, show redder colors in the near-infrared, fainter absolute magnitudes at the same wavelength and other spectral peculiarities that suggest the line of development between brown dwarfs and gas giant planets may not be as clear cut as once assumed. The paper makes clear how complex the issue is:
PSO J318.5−22 shares a strong physical similarity to the young dusty planets HR 8799bcd and 2MASS J1207−39b, as seen in its colors, absolute magnitudes, spectrum, luminosity, and mass. Most notably, it is the ﬁrst ﬁeld L dwarf with near-IR absolute magnitudes as faint as the HR 8799 and 2MASS J1207−39 planets, demonstrating that the very red, faint region of the near-IR color-magnitude diagram is not exclusive to young exoplanets. Its probable membership in the β Pic moving group makes it a new substellar benchmark at young ages and planetary masses.
A landmark indeed, and here the Beta Pictoris moving group, a collection of young stars formed about twelve million years ago, is worth noting. Beta Pictoris itself is known to have a young gas giant planet in orbit around it. The newly detected PSO J318.5−22 is lower still in mass than the Beta Pictoris planet and it is thought to have formed in a different way. The paper goes on:
We ﬁnd very red, low-gravity L dwarfs have ≈400 K cooler temperatures relative to ﬁeld objects of comparable spectral type, yet have similar luminosities. Comparing very red L dwarf spectra to each other and to directly imaged planets highlights the challenges of diagnosing physical properties from near-IR spectra.
The beauty of objects like these from an astronomical point of view is that we don’t have to worry about filtering out the overwhelming light of a parent star as we study them. Co-author Niall Deacon (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy) thinks PSO J318.5−22 will “provide a wonderful view into the inner workings of gas-giant planets like Jupiter shortly after their birth.” The discovery also gives us much to think about in terms of future explorations as we contemplate a cosmos in which perhaps vast numbers of planets move in solitary trajectories through the galaxy.
I like the idea of targeting “rogue” planets as potential interstellar missions within the next 100 years. The probes can be smaller and the fuel problem won’t be as bad.
NASA’s Phoenix lander may have already hit pay dirt with its first scoop of Martian soil – it contains white streaks that could be water ice. Meanwhile, mission engineers have fixed an electrical glitch on an important Phoenix instrument, restoring it to health.
“It’s been a thrill for me this first week after landing on the permafrost region in the Northern Arctic on Mars to find out that we’re in a really great place for doing the science we plan to do,” said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, US, Phoenix’s chief scientist, at a press conference on Monday.
The $420-million spacecraft has now gouged out its first scoopful of Martian dirt from an area informally known as the Knave of Hearts, using its 2.3-metre robotic arm.
The brain trust isn’t exactly sure if this stuff is actually ice or salt, since it’s theorized that Mars’ water was a seriously salty brine before it finally dried up completely. But I guess the first chemical analysis will find out, won’t it?
The goal of finding an Earth-like planet around another star has just come closer. Astronomers announced today they have discovered a planet of about three Earth masses orbiting a star smaller than our sun.
The planet has the closest mass to Earth of all the known extrasolar planets, and is the lightest planet ever found orbiting a normal-size star. “Our discovery indicates that even the lowest mass stars can host planets,” David Bennett of the University of Notre Dame, who led an international team of astronomers to the discovery, said on Monday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in St Louis, Missouri, US.
The planet is referred to as MOA-2007-BLG-192L and is around 3000 light years from Earth. Planet formation theory suggests it is likely made mostly of rock and ice.
The planet’s orbit around the host star is of a similar radius to the orbit of Venus, although it is likely to be much colder than Pluto. That is because the host star, thought to be a brown dwarf between 6 and 8 percent of the Sun’s mass, may not be large enough to sustain nuclear reactions in its core.
Believe it or not, astronomers and other planet hunters are getting rather good at finding extrasolar planets. The method used in this case is gravitational microlensing, which uses an object’s gravity that warps the light from another object behind it which magnifies the image of it.
Not my idea, blame Einstein. I just post the stuff. Read the article.
Also, read this post at Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams, they explain it better than I can.
And I can’t let this day go by without a little rant against the rampant corporatism that has the nation and the world by our collective throats and our wallets:
On Thursday, new Time Warner Cable Internet subscribers in Beaumont, Texas, will have monthly allowances for the amount of data they upload and download. Those who go over will be charged $1 per gigabyte, a Time Warner Cable executive told the Associated Press.
Just 5 percent of the company’s subscribers take up half of the capacity on local cable lines, Leddy said. Other cable Internet service providers report a similar distribution.
“We think it’s the fairest way to finance the needed investment in the infrastructure,” Leddy said.
Metered usage is common overseas, and other U.S. cable providers are looking at ways to rein in heavy users. Most have download caps, but some keep the caps secret so as not to alarm the majority of users, who come nowhere close to the limits. Time Warner Cable appears to be the first major ISP to charge for going over the limit: Other companies warn, then suspend, those who go over.
Time Warner can bite me. Trouble is, Verizon and all these other criminals do the same, plus report you to the ‘Ministry’ of ‘Homeland’ Security!
So much for the sanctity of the InnerTubes. Big Brother is not only watching, but making us pay in order for them to watch!