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Rogue planets may be more numerous than stars in our galaxy

Image of a planet against a dark background.

Enlarge / An artist’s conception of an ice-encrusted rogue planet. (credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Planets that go rogue orbit no star. They wander the vacuum of space alone, having been kicked out of their star systems by gravitational interactions with other planets and stars. Nobody really knows how many rogue planets could be out there, but that may change in a few years.

Researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Osaka University in Japan have used the phenomenon of gravitational microlensing to estimate the number of rogue planets that could be revealed in the heart of the Milky Way. They analyzed data from the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) survey that searched for gravitational microlensing events from 2006 to 2014 to figure out how many more of these events we could expect to find with NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

There are currently only 70 known rogue planets, but there could be hundreds more out there. The researchers now suggest that Roman could discover at least 400 Earth-mass rogues meandering through our galaxy.

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