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Life Beyond Stars: Moons Orbiting Rogue Planets May Harbor Liquid Water and Life

Here's how rogue planets appear in space based on an artist's impression. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Liquid water is vital for life on Earth, and recent findings by scientists from the ORIGINS Cluster and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics suggest that specific conditions could enable moons orbiting rogue planets to retain liquid water, potentially supporting life.

Life as we know it on Earth relies on liquid water, and recent research has revealed that certain conditions could allow moons orbiting rogue planets to retain water, potentially fostering life.

The Importance of Liquid Water in the Emergence of Life

As explained by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Liquid water is essential for life on Earth, and scientists believe that it plays a critical role in the chemical evolution that can lead to life elsewhere. The habitable zone is the region around a star where conditions are suitable for liquid water to exist on a planet. Moons can also be habitable, even if their planets lie outside the habitable zone, provided they have alternative heat sources, such as tidal forces. Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, has an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface due to tidal heating.

Free-Floating Planets and the Potential for Life

Free-floating planets (FFPs) have been discovered wandering our galaxy, challenging our understanding of planetary systems and formation theories. These planets were likely ejected from their systems and no longer have a parent star. However, if they possess tightly orbiting moons, they can maintain a gravitational bond. This phenomenon is most effective for Jupiter-like planets with Earth-sized moons, opening up new possibilities for life to emerge.

Earth-Sized Moons Around Rogue Planets: A Promising Environment

In a previous study, researchers showed that Earth-sized moons around Jupiter-like FFPs may contain liquid water. Tommaso Grassi from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics explained that, under specific conditions and with stable orbital parameters, liquid water could form on the surface of these exomoons. Although the amount of water is less than that in Earth’s oceans, it could be sufficient to support the development of primordial life.

“We modelled this environment and found that, under specific conditions and assuming stable orbital parameters over time, liquid water can be formed on the surface of the exomoon,” explains Tommaso Grassi from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. “While the final amount of water for an Earth-mass exomoon is smaller than the amount of water in Earth oceans, it would be enough to host the potential development of primordial life.”

The Role of Wet-Dry Cycles in Chemical Complexity

Wet-dry cycles, involving evaporation and condensation, contribute to the chemical complexity required for the accumulation of molecules and the polymerization of RNA, as demonstrated in a recent study by ORIGINS scientists.

A Collaboration of Astrophysics and Biochemistry

In a groundbreaking partnership, researchers developed a realistic model to calculate the evolution of lunar orbits over billions of years, the time frame necessary for the evolution of life. The team discovered that exomoons with smaller orbital radii have the best chance of surviving their planet’s ejection and maintaining eccentricity for the longest time. These moons can optimally produce tidal heat, and with dense atmospheres, they can better preserve liquid water. Consequently, Earth-sized moons with Venus-like atmospheres and close-in orbits around rogue planets are prime candidates for habitable worlds.

Astonishing Numbers: The Prevalence of Rogue Planets in Our Galaxy

The prevalence of rogue planets in the galaxy is often underestimated, but recent estimates suggest that there could be anywhere from 100 to 100,000 rogue planets for every star in the Milky Way. This staggering figure implies that the total number of wandering planets in our galaxy may be close to an astounding quadrillion. The sheer abundance of these celestial bodies underscores the importance of understanding their potential to host life and the implications for the broader search for extraterrestrial life.

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