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What I've Learned
My imagination has been stretched, causing me to shake my head in wonder.
Do you know what a rogue planet is? It's one that has broken free of its star's influence and is floating on its own in the deep reaches of space.
Rogue planets, it was thought, were like rogue elephants, few in number, exceptions, solitary wanderers not part of any herd.
Whenever I have considered the possibility of life on other planets, I've always pictured those planets as orbiting obediently, as does our Earth, around a star. Those planets, like our own, would have to be not too far and not too close to their sun, but rather at a just-right distance for life to flourish.
I've had no problem imagining beings in far-distant places living and loving and working to pay the bills. I can imagine them going to the movies, holding hands — or tentacles, perhaps — and enjoying a snack.
As I've stood in my yard on clear, moonless nights, I've never had difficulty imagining someone like me — if not in appearance, then in sentiment — looking up, millions of light years away, at his own night sky, seeing different constellations and imagining me, here, looking up, imagining him.
The universe is so vast and the number of stars and planetary systems so large, the odds of there being life elsewhere is a safe bet. But not on rogue planets. Such places would be too dark and too cold. And besides, unlike planets around stars, rogues are too few for the odds of life to be very great.
Or so I thought.
In recent years, astronomers had located as many as 10 rogue planets and are coming to the conclusion that there may be as many free-floating rogues in the universe as there are planets around stars. Here's a quote from an article on the NASA website:
"The team estimates there are about twice as many free-floating Jupiter-mass planets as stars. In addition, these worlds are thought to be at least as common as planets that orbit stars. This adds up to hundreds of billions of lone planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone."
If there are so many rogue planets, how come we haven't noticed them before? We haven't noticed them because they are small, much smaller than stars, and unlit, making them hard to see. Instead of rogue planets, these free-floaters are referred to as "interstellar planetary bodies."
The number of such motherless planets is huge, plenty large enough for the odds of life to be as great as the odds for orbiting planets.
But surely interstellar planets, with no star near by, would be too dark and too cold for life.
Back in 1998, before the recent discovery of how many rogues there could in fact be, a scientist named David J. Stevenson wrote a paper called "Possibility of Life-Sustaining Planets in Interstellar Space."
He showed that it is possible, at least in theory, for an interstellar planetary body to have not just an atmosphere, but a surface temperature above the freezing point of water, making oceans possible.
But what about light?
Here on earth, life flourishes in dark places, deep in caves and on the ocean floor. And on clear, moonless nights, starlight alone gives enough illumination for me to walk about my yard without tripping.
So now, as surely as I can imagine people living on other earth-like planets, I can imagine people living on interstellar planets, unlighted by a sun. And I can imagine a person such as I – perhaps not in form, but in feeling – learning that there are planets, many planets, that twirl about dangerously close to stars. And I can imagine that person thinking how near-impossible it must be for intelligent life, or life of any sort, to exist on planets so near to giant blazing infernos. And beside, how could any creature possibly see in such bright light.
And I can see that person shaking his primary mind-holding appendage at having his imagination stretched so.