McFeatters: Lonely, unattached planets seek companionship
Looking for a special gift for that hard-to-buy-for person on your shopping list? How about a planet? Astronomers are now convinced that there are potentially millions of orphan planets, unclaimed by any star system, floating free in our galaxy. The closest one is a gas giant the size of Jupiter -- but with four to seven times the mass -- a relatively close 100 light years from Earth.
It is near the constellation Dorado, but it is not a part of that system. Instead, it is an independent, unattached planet floating aimlessly -- well, we say aimlessly, but maybe it has something in mind -- through space.
These free-floating planets were confirmed in 2009 by observatories in Hawaii and Chile, and since they have no star of their own to provide reflected light and are comparatively young, they are identified by the residual heat from their creation.
As astronomers study the unattached planets, they are entertaining the possibility that there are more of these orphans floating through space than stars. Some are captured by solar systems and begin orbiting like regular planets.
But others float quite independently through space. Some astronomers question whether they are technically planets since they don't orbit a star. Their discovery is recent enough that astronomers haven't settled on a name for them. Rogue planets is one choice; free-floating planets another. But we think the technically correct name accorded to them by the International Astronomical Union, "planetary mass object" or "planemo," just doesn't cut it.
Astronomers are closer and closer to finding Earth-like planets. Someday they may find an orphan Earth clone, and then with capabilities we don't yet have and technologies we don't yet possess, bring it back to our own solar system as a backup. Just in case we screw up really badly with the planet we already have. Someone has to claim those orphans.
Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.