The Dark Planets

An article appeared today on about the detection of “free-floating planets.” These planets may have formed around a central star, like the planets in our Solar System did, but due to some gravitational interaction during their star system’s formation the planets escaped their stars. These Jovian planets, which may outnumber stars in our galaxy, are now doomed to endlessly wander the cosmos under perpetual starry night skies.

Naturally, this notion tripped my sci-fi circuits.


This artist's conception illustrates a Jupiter-like planet alone in the dark of space, floating freely without a parent star. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We live in an age in which new planetary systems are being discovered at an incredible rate. We are getting closer and closer to the ability to detect other Earth-like worlds around other stars. In fact, just a few days ago a study found that certain climate models of Gliese 581d (that would be potential-planet Zarmina‘s until-now-slightly-less-sexy sister) may support a liquid water cycle.

So what would it take for one of these free-flying, starless planets to be habitable?

The immediate answer that may come to you, the average person, is, “Joe, you are crazy.” But wait a moment!

All life requires is an energy input and certain chemicals, right? Well, all sorts of chemicals exist in gas planets. And there are plenty of possible energy inputs from the gas dynamics going on in their atmospheres – not to mention magnetic fields and other esoteric stuff like that that Earth life generally doesn’t incorporate into its metabolism.

But forget gas-giant balloon-life. Suppose we constrain our notion of habitability to the usual anthropocentric meaning: liquid water on a rocky surface.

In order for a rocky planet to have liquid surface water, it needs two things: heat and pressure. (Pressure so that the water doesn’t just sublimate or boil off into space, and heat so that it doesn’t freeze.) The “pressure” part we can take care of by giving our rocky world an atmosphere. However, we need a heat source – not only to keep the water from freezing, but to keep the atmosphere itself from freezing onto the planet, too. How do we get this heat source? Radioactive heating from the planet interior isn’t going to warm the surface to 273 K. Stars are all going to be too far from these planets to do any good. Emission nebulae are way too cold and rarified, even if the planet is right in the middle of them. The planet is going to pretty efficiently radiate away any heat inputs before that energy goes into heating ice to make water. (I suppose we could stick the planet right in the way of a black hole’s polar jet or some other source of hard radiation for our energy source – but then we’re back to getting really alien alien life. Fun to think about! And what happens to those alien civilizations that thrive on a dark planet bathed in X rays when their planet finishes traversing the zone of hard radiation?!)

I’m pretty convinced that liquid surface water is not going to appear on any free-flying rocky planets. Unless…

Suppose, when a Jovian planet got ejected from its birth star system, it carried its moon system away with it. Maybe some heat can come off of that gas giant and hit the moon! It’s not going to be reflected light, though, because there’s no star to provide bright enough light. No, the energy will have to come from the Jovian itself. This condition means that we’ll have to look at something like brown dwarfs: astronomical bodies that are just slightly too small to ignite under their internal pressure and turn into the hydrogen fusion furnaces that are stars. But they do have some fusion going on in their dense cores.

Take Teide 1, the first brown dwarf to have its existence confirmed. It has a surface temperature of around 2500 K, a luminosity of about 0.001 Lsun, and a radius around 0.1 Rsun. Suppose that a rocky (Earth-density) satellite orbits Teide 1 at its Roche limit, the closest orbital radius it can have without tides tearing the moon apart into a pretty but uninhabitable ring. (By a quick calculation, I get about 337,000 km for Teide 1 – coincidentally close to the Earth-Moon distance.) At that distance, the moon would receive around 1 million watts per square meter from the Jovian. If that’s the input power, the Stefan-Boltzmann law gives the output radiation of the planet in equilibrium. With a couple assumptions about albedo (Earthlike) and assuming that the moon receives incoming radiation over its cross-sectional area but radiates out over its entire surface (and that it’s the size of Earth’s Moon), my quick hand scratchings give a surface temperature near 50 K. Hmm…no liquid surface water there.

But there’s another possible heat input to a moon around a gas giant: the tides of the Jovian world.

Consider Jupiter: it has four big moons, and Jupiter raises such huge tides on these moons that the rocky mini-worlds actually flex, generating heat from friction. On Europa, this tidal heating in its central rocky part is sufficient to melt the inner bit of its water-ice coating into an ocean. Heck, scientists combing Galileo probe data just determined that tidal heating is sufficient to keep pretty much all of Io’s interior molten. That world is made of lava, with a thin crusty shell. And it’s all because the moon orbits a gas giant in a resonance with some other moons. the interaction between their orbits keeps the tidal energy coming.

So let’s give our moon some companions and an orbital resonance. Solar radiation is negligible compared to tidal heating even for Jupiter, so we know that that could give our moon liquid water…at least under the surface, like Europa.

But add an atmosphere, and you get an insulating blanket around the moon’s surface. More internal heat stays trapped on the moon’s surface instead of radiating away into space. I haven’t done the calculations, but if tidal heating can liquify rock on Io I bet it could be enough to melt Europa’s ice layer all the way through for slightly different orbital parameters. And with an atmosphere, the moon gets pressure to keep that liquid water from boiling. Like Titan. Put Titan where Io is…and what do you get? I’m not sure, but it would be really interesting. And it wouldn’t require the Sun.

Cool, huh? It certainly hasn’t been confirmed, and I don’t have a detailed model, of course, but I think the theoretical grounds exist for these free-flying dark planets to have liquid-water surfaces. Imagine vacationing on a beach next to a steaming ocean that is basically a global-scale hot spring, where it’s perpetual night and every couple (Earth) days you see the shadowy form of the gas giant loom overhead, visible more because of the stars it blocks out than from any external light source, except for the occasional immense spark of lightning through its clouds…

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