Friday, August 6, 2010

Rogue Worlds

The formation of planets in protoplanetary disks around stars is a messy process and a significant number of protoplanets with masses similar to planets such as the Earth or Mars may get ejected from their solar systems by gravitational interactions with massive gas giant planets. It is even possible that more protoplanets are ejected than retained in protoplanetary disks around stars and a considerable number of such ejected worlds might be wandering in the immense and dark expanses of interstellar space. Interstellar space is basically the vast and enormous spaces between stars.

An ejected planet with the mass of the Earth can retain an atmosphere of hydrogen in the frigid temperatures of interstellar space since the atmosphere of hydrogen will be cold enough to be bounded by the gravity of the planet. In comparison, at the distance where the Earth is from the Sun, a planet has to be over 10 times more massive than the Earth for its own gravity to be sufficiently strong enough to keep an atmosphere of hydrogen from escaping into space. In this article, I shall denote such ejected worlds as interstellar planets. From a distance, an interstellar planet will appear as a dark silhouette against a field of distant background stars.

The effective temperature of an interstellar planet is expected to be just several degrees Kelvin above absolute zero and any form of water at this temperature will be frozen solid. However, if an interstellar planet has a sufficiently thick atmosphere of hydrogen where the pressure at the bottom of such an atmosphere ranges from a hundred to a few thousand bars, the pressure-induced infrared opacity of molecular hydrogen will greatly insulate the planet from dissipating its internal radiogenic heat into space. At high pressures, molecular hydrogen is very effective at trapping heat and this significantly reduces the amount of heat lost into space.

With such an overlying atmosphere of hydrogen, the surface temperature of an interstellar planet can potentially exceed the meting point of water! In an environment like this, it will be possible for oceans of liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface and the ocean can be kept warm by the persistent flux of heat generated by the decay of radioactive isotopes in the planet’s interior.

On the surface of an interstellar planet, the sky will appear totally back and it is highly unlikely that stars will be visible from the planet’s surface due to the thick hydrogen atmosphere. However, areas of the planet’s surface can still be illuminated by occasional flashes of lightning. In the lower and warmer reaches of the atmosphere, it is possible for clouds of water droplets to form and drive a hydrological cycle. The atmospheric temperature decreases higher up in the atmosphere, possibly enabling other gases such as ammonia and nitrogen that have lower condensation temperatures to condense into clouds at these higher altitudes. Therefore, an interstellar planet can have several cloud layers of different condensates in its atmosphere.

To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow.
- Metrodorus of Chios, 4th century BC

An interstellar planet can provide a stable environment for life for billions of year until the surface temperature declines below the meting point of water as the heat generating radioisotopes in the interior of the planet slowly gets depleted. Interstellar planets will be extremely difficult to detect as the amount of radiation they emit is exceedingly miniscule compared to the large amount of solar radiation the Earth reflects back into space as the Earth basks in the warm vicinity of the Sun. Finally, if interstellar planets do exist in significant numbers in the vast and uncharted expanses between the stars, these dark worlds might serve as common sites for life-supporting environments in the universe.