NASA speculates there are hundreds of rogue planets hiding all across the galaxy and may actually outnumber the hundreds of billions of stars.
These free-floating orbs travel around space unattached to a larger star and an orbital telescope set to launch in 2025 aims to uncover their existence.
According to researchers, the $4 billion Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will be 10 times more sensitive in detecting these invisible objects than what is currently possible.
Only a dozen rogue planets have been found to date, as they have been difficult to study because the cosmic orbs drift far distances from starlight
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Unlike the Earth, rogue planets don’t orbit a star. The $4b Roman Space Telescope will be 10 times more sensitive in detecting these elusive objects than what’s possible now
Last year, researchers in the Netherlands estimated there could be 50 billion in the Milky Way.
According to a new report in The Astronomical Journal, though, they may ultimately outnumber the 100 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy.
‘The Universe could be teeming with rogue planets and we wouldn’t even know it,’ said co-author Scott Gaudi, an astronomy professor at Ohio State.
The Roman’s secret weapon in finding these nomad planets is a technique called gravitational microlensing.
The Roman will illuminate nomad planets with gravitational microlensing, which uses the gravity of stars and planets to warp light coming from stars that pass behind them.
It uses the gravitational pull from stars and planets to warp light coming from stars that pass behind them.
When the light is magnified, scientists are able to see previously hidden objects, including rogue planets.
Microlensing has been in use for some time but the Roman will be a ‘game changer’ for astronomers.
‘The microlensing signal from a rogue planet only lasts between a few hours and a couple of days and then is gone forever,’ said co-author Matthew Penny, an astrophysicist at Louisiana State University.
‘This makes them difficult to observe from Earth, even with multiple telescopes.’
The Roman’s Wide Field Instrument sensor, a 288-megapixel ‘near-infrared’ camera, can scan an area 100 times larger than the Hubble.
‘To actually get a complete picture, our best bet is something like Roman. This is a totally new frontier,’ co-author Samson Johnson, an astronomy graduate student at OSU, told Ohio State News.
Johnson says we may discover our Solar System, with its nine planets circling the Sun, is the exception, not the rule.
‘Roman will help us learn more about how we fit in the cosmic scheme of things by studying rogue planets. Imagine our little rocky planet just floating freely in space – that’s what this mission will help us find.’
The Roman’s Wide Field Instrument sensor will offer a field of view 100 times larger than the Hubble. In May, NASA announced it was renaming what was then called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) after Nancy Grace Roman, one of the agency’s first female employees and ‘the mother of the Hubble’
Roman could also help tell scientists how rogue planets are created.
One theory is that they form in gaseous disks around stars, before being jettisoned by gravitational forces.
Another is that they form like stars, in the collapse of massive clouds of gas and dust.
Nancy Grace Roman joined NASA in 1959, just six months after the agency was formed, and helped organize a team of engineers and astronomers to design what would become the Hubble Telescope
Work on the telescope began in 2011 and, in February, it was cleared for hardware testing to ensure its durability in orbit.
NASA has said it will launch some time in the 2020s.
In May, the agency announced it was renaming the telescope, then called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) after Nancy Grace Roman, one of the agency’s first female employees.
Roman joined NASA in 1959 and is often described as ‘the mother of the Hubble Telescope’
She organized teams of astronomers and engineers to create what would become the Hubble Telescope and helped convince Congress to approve its $36 million development.
WHO WAS NANCY GRACE ROMAN?
Nancy Grace Roman was one of the first women to work at NASA and a central figures in the development of the Hubble Telescope.
She was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 16, 1925.
As a child, she was drawn to the study of outer space.’I was just fascinated.’ Roman said in a short NASA documentary.
‘I blamed my mother because she used to take me out and show me the constellations and show me the Northern Lights and things like that.’
In fifth grade she organized an astronomy club with her fellow classmates, and by seventh grade she decided to pursue a career as an astronomer, knowing she would face resistance in the male-dominated field.
‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’ she remembered a high school counsellor telling her when she shared her ambitions.
Roman earned a Bachelor of Science in astronomy from Swarthmore College, and a PhD at the University of Chicago.
She had hoped to continue a career as an academic researcher, but realized it was unlikely she would ever qualify for tenure or have access to the same resources her male colleagues did.
‘I certainly did not receive any encouragement,’ she would recall. ‘I was told from the beginning that women could not be scientists.’
In 1955 decided to take a job with the US Naval Research Laboratory, and in 1959, she became one of the first group of workers to join NASA, as chief of astronomy and relativity with the Office of Space Science, just six months after the agency had been formed.
As NASA, Roman pushed to develop an orbital telescope to measure cosmic radiation in space that would otherwise be impossible to detect on Earth due to atmospheric interference.
Nancy Roman Grace had initially wanted to focus on academic research, but after realizing sexism would be a major obstacle to securing tenure, she went to work for the US Naval Research Laboratory, and then NASA
She contributed to the development of four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972, and helped champion the International Ultraviolet Explorer, a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency that launched in 1978 and collected data used in the first major study of stellar winds.
Roman also played a central role in persuading congress to fund the Hubble Telescope’s $36million development.
In 1998, Hubble’s chief scientist Ed Weiler described her as ‘the mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.’
She died on December 25, 2018 of natural causes–at the age of 93.