Artist's impression of one of the 70+ free-floating alien rogue planets. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

There is a surprising abundance of rogue planets in our Galaxy

"Our galaxy may host 20 times more rogue planets than stars, equating to trillions of worlds wandering alone."


A ground-breaking study from scientists at NASA and Japan’s Osaka University reveals that there is a surprising abundance of rogue planets, free-floating in space without a star, in our galaxy. In fact, experts believe that these strange worlds far exceed the number of star-orbiting planets. This staggering revelation indicates that NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope could discover up to 400 Earth-mass rogue worlds.

Surprising Abundance of Rogue Planets in Our Galaxy

Research co-author David Bennett, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, suggests, “Our galaxy may host 20 times more rogue planets than stars, equating to trillions of worlds wandering alone.” This study marks the first estimate of rogue planet numbers in the galaxy that accounts for planets less massive than Earth.

Insights from Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics

The team drew conclusions from a nine-year survey, MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics), conducted at New Zealand’s Mount John University Observatory. This method observes microlensing events, which occur when an object like a star or planet aligns perfectly with a distant star, acting as a lens and causing a brief increase in the star’s light intensity. This technique provides unique insights into the intervening object.

Takahiro Sumi, a professor at Osaka University, and lead author of the paper, explains, “Microlensing is the only method we have to identify objects such as low-mass free-floating planets and even primordial black holes. It’s thrilling to use gravity to discover objects we could never hope to see directly.”


First of Many Discoveries

The study’s discovery of a roughly Earth-mass rogue planet marks only the second of its kind. The findings, set to be published in The Astronomical Journal, include a demographic analysis showing that rogue planets are six times more common than star-orbiting planets.

Revealing Insights on Planetary Formation

Within a few decades, we have transitioned from questioning whether our solar system was unique, to uncovering over 5,300 planets beyond it. While the majority of these discoveries are massive or in close proximity to their stars, rogue planets appear to be comparatively small. “Earth-size rogues are more common than their massive counterparts,” said Sumi, adding, “the disparity in masses between star-bound and free-floating planets is key to understanding planetary formation mechanisms.”

World-building is a chaotic process, with celestial bodies gravitationally interacting as they stabilize their orbits. Planetary lightweights aren’t as firmly tethered to their star, resulting in some being flung into space to begin a lone existence among the interstellar shadows.

Future Prospects

Microlensing events revealing these solitary planets are exceedingly rare, so the key to finding more is a broader search area. That’s precisely what the Roman telescope will do after its launch in May 2027. Naoki Koshimoto, who led the paper announcing the detection of a candidate terrestrial-mass rogue world, said, “Roman’s wide view and sharp vision will allow us to study the objects it finds in more detail than we can do using only ground-based telescopes.”


While earlier estimates suggested Roman would discover 50 terrestrial-mass rogue worlds, new findings propose a potential for approximately 400. Scientists eagerly anticipate the launch of the Roman telescope and simultaneous ground-based observations from facilities like Japan’s PRIME telescope, expecting the collaboration to refine rogue planet mass measurements and enhance our understanding of the galaxy’s celestial inhabitants.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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