Some stars capture rogue planets
New research suggests that billions of stars in our galaxy have captured rogue planets that once roamed interstellar space. The nomad worlds, which were kicked out of the star systems in which they formed, occasionally find a new home with a different sun. This finding could explain the existence of some planets that orbit surprisingly far from their stars.
To reach their conclusion, astronomers simulated young star clusters containing free-floating planets. They found that if the number of rogue planets equaled the number of stars, then 3-6% of the stars would grab a planet over time. The more massive a star, the more likely it is to snag a planet drifting by. Over time, the clusters disperse due to close interactions between their stars, so any planet-star encounters have to happen early in the cluster’s history.
Rogue planets are a natural consequence of star formation. Newborn star systems often contain multiple planets. If two planets interact, one can be ejected and become an interstellar traveler. If it later encounters a different star moving in the same direction at the same speed, it can hitch a ride. A captured planet tends to end up hundreds or thousands of times farther from its star than Earth is from the Sun. It’s also likely to have a orbit that’s tilted relative to any native planets, and may even revolve around its star backward.
Above: In this artist’s conception, a captured world drifts at the outer edge of a distant star system, so far from its Sun-like host that the star’s disk is barely resolvable at upper right. New research shows that one in 20 stars within our galaxy might have captured a free-floating planet.