Euclid telescope spies rogue planets floating freely in the Milky Way

Astronomers have spotted dozens of rogue planets floating loose from their stars after turning the Euclid Space Telescope to look at a remote region of the Milky Way.

The wandering worlds were spotted deep in the Orion Nebula, a giant cloud of dust and gas 1,500 light-years away, and described in the first scientific results announced by researchers on the Euclid mission.

The European Space Agency (Esa) launched the €1 billion observatory last summer for a six-year mission to create a 3D map of the cosmos. Armed with the images, scientists hope to understand more about the mysterious 95% of the universe that remains unexplained.

According to astronomers’ theories, most of the universe is made up of dark matter, an invisible substance that clings around galaxies and acts like a cosmic glue, and dark energy, which is believed to be driving the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Euclid image of NGC 6744, one of the largest spiral galaxies in the nearby universe. Photo: Esa/Euclids/Euclids Consortium/Nasa

The first wave of science results comes from just 24 hours of observations, revealing 11 million objects in visible light and 5 meters in infrared. In addition to the rogue planets, the researchers describe new star clusters, dwarf galaxies and very distant, bright galaxies from the first billion years of the universe.

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A stream of new images from the same observations are the largest ever taken in space, demonstrating the stunning wide-angle views astronomers can expect from Euclid in the coming years. Among the images released Thursday is a breathtaking view of Messier 78, a vibrant stellar nursery shrouded in interstellar dust, revealing complex filaments of gas and dust in unprecedented detail.

“I am absolutely amazed by the images I have seen,” said Prof. Mark Cropper, chief scientist of Euclid’s VIS camera at UCL. “These are not just beautiful photos, these images are packed with new information.”

Euclid’s image of the Dorado Group, one of the richest galaxies in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: Esa/Euclids/Euclids Consortium/Nasa

One of the newly released images shows Abell 2390, a gigantic conglomeration of more than 50,000 Milky Way-like galaxies. Such galaxy clusters contain up to 10 trillion times the mass of the Sun, much of which is made up of elusive dark matter. Another image of the galaxy cluster Abell 2764 reveals hundreds of galaxies orbiting in a halo of dark matter.

Other images capture NGC 6744, one of the largest spiral galaxies in the nearby universe, and the Dorado group of galaxies, where evolving and merging galaxies produce shell-like structures and enormous, curving tidal tails.

The rogue planets identified by Euclid are about 3 million years old, making them young planets on a cosmic scale. They are at least four times the size of Jupiter and were detected thanks to the heat they radiate. Astronomers know they float freely because they are so far away from the nearest stars. The celestial wanderers are destined to drift through the Milky Way unless they encounter a star that pulls them into orbit.

“The fact that we have made a few observations and seen these planets means that if we go deeper and look over larger areas, which we will do, we will see an abundance of planets and learn a lot more about planet formation,” says Christopher Conselice, professor of extragalactic astronomy at the University of Manchester.

Rogue planets have been found before, but not on this scale. By studying them numerically, astronomers hope to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that could keep them out of early solar systems. “This is just the beginning, much more needs to be done,” Conselice added. “It’s a great time to be working on Euclid and astronomy in general.”

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