NASA’s Roman Space Telescope will hunt the rogue planets that wander alone

There are so-called ‘rogue’ planets in the universe around us, ones that float around without the tether of a nearby star. Finding theses rogue planets is tricky because of their lack of a star, but the upcoming mission will utilize a technology that can identify the presence of a rogue planet by studying its impact on other stars farther off in the distance.

The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope features an infrared observatory that, once it launches, will be able to identify the signatures of rogue planets, at least based on simulations recently reported by NASA. The telescope is still under construction at this time, but it is expected to wrap up in the next few years with a mission start date of 2025.

The research was led by a team at Ohio State University; the findings were recently published in the Astronomical Journal. This will mark a big evolution in humanity’s ability to detect these planets, which will then help shed light on the nature of the universe around us and how planets like Earth fit into it all.

NASA notes that at the present moment, identifying rogue planets is very difficult — for this reason, only a few have been ‘tentatively’ discovered. How will the Roman Space Telescope change this? The space agency explains that this observatory will identify rogue planets by conducting a microlensing survey of the universe.

The technology will note an effect called gravitational lensing — a kind of warping caused by a very large rogue planet as it passes in front of a distant star. This, NASA explains, is the best way to conduct a systematic scan for rogue planets that may otherwise go undetected.

This is particularly true when the planets are smaller in size, such as down to around the size of Mars, because the smaller mass results in ‘warping’ that is more difficult to detect. Discovering more of these planets will help researchers learn how the planets form and what causes some of them to eventually peel away from their star, doomed to wander the dark, cold universe alone.

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