Steppenwolf: Interstellar Rogue Planets May Support Life

Rogue planets are planets that were formed in the usual way in a solar system, but which are "kicked out" by slingshot interactions with other bodies in the system.

Two researchers at the University of Chicago, Dorian Abbot and Eric Switzer, have calculated that an Earth-like rogue planet could support life in liquid oceans that are heated from below by the planet's core, and insulated by a thick layer of liquid ice.

They call such a body a Steppenwolf planet "since any life in this strange habitat would exist like a lone wolf wandering the galactic steppe."


(Regions in which a subglacial ocean could exist)
Diagram depicting, as a function of planetary mass and
temperature at the top of the ice, regions in which a subglacial
ocean could exist on a rogue planet if heat is lost through the
ice only by conduction. The lower dashed curve is the minimum
possible ice top temperature allowed to radiate the geothermal heat
flux in steady-state. The upper dashed curve corresponds to the
melting point of CO2. A subglacial ocean is possible for Earth’s
water mass fraction in the light shaded region and is possible in
both shaded regions if the planetary water mass fraction is ten
times Earth’s.

A Steppenwolf planet’s lifetime will be limited by the decay of the geothermal heat flux, which is determined by the half-life of its stock of radioisotopes and by the decay of its heat of formation. These decay times are ∼1−5 Gyr, so its lifetime is thus comparable to planets in the traditional habitable zone of main-sequence stars.

If a Steppenwolf planet harbors life, it could have originated in a more benign era before ejection from the host star. Alternatively, life could originate after ejection around hydrothermal vents, which are a proposed location for the origin of life on Earth. If life can originate and survive on a Steppenwolf planet, it must be truly ubiquitous in the universe. We have shown that a rogue planet drifting through interstellar space could harbor a subglacial liquid ocean despite its low emission temperature, and so might be considered habitable. Such an object could be detected and followed-up using current technology if it passed within 1000 AU of Earth.

Science fiction writers have speculated on the idea of rogue planets. In his beautiful 1977 novel Dying of the Light, George R.R. Martin writes about a world named Worlorn, a rogue planet discovered by the race of Man in the distant future. When the path of the object was plotted, it was clear that it would make a single close approach to the Hellcrown, a multiple star system. Fifty standard years of sunlight would briefly warm this wandering world, the venue for the greatest festival ever held...

There was a century of storms as Worlorn neared the light: years of melting ice and volcanic activity and earthquakes. A frozen atomosphere came, bit by bit, to life and hideous winds howled like monster infants. All this the outworlders faced and fought.

The terraformers came from Tober-in-the-Veil, the weather wardens from Darkdawn... The men of High Kavalaan supervised it all, since High Kavalaan claimed the rogue... At last Worlorn was gentled. Then cities rose, and strange forests flowered ... and animals were set loose to give the planet life.

In ai-589 the Festival of the Fringe opened.. On that first day the Toberians let their stratoshield shimmer, so the clouds and the sunlight ran and swirled in kaleidoscope patterns. Other days followed, and the ships came...
(From Dying of the Light)

From The Steppenwolf: A Proposal For A Habitable Planet in Interstellar Space via MIT's Technology Review.

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