I am wondering if habitable planets could form around stars in super dense dwarf galaxies. There are some super dense galaxies such as M60-UCD1 and M85-HCC1 which can have a typical distance between stars of 1/20th of a light-year, compared to the Milky Way's average of 4 light-years between stars.

It is believed the reason for the density is their outer stars were stripped of by a larger galaxy neighbour. Due to the close proximity of stars, solar systems would have to be smaller than ours without the further out icy planets, and any planets that do form could be sent out of orbit from their home solar system from the pull of nearby stars.

I wondered if it is possible at all that habitable Earth-like planets could form? Due to the extremely short interstellar distances, an advanced civilization could explore their area of the galaxy, searching for life, terraforming or even harvesting energy from many stars, with far more ease than in larger galaxies.

Is it possible at all that rocky Earth-like planets could form around stars in such a densely packed galaxy and remain in a stable orbit for long timescales?

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    $\begingroup$ Some context as to why this is a Worldbuilding question would be appropriate. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2020 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG I was going to add at the bottom of the question that I have also put this on astronomy stack but I read u can post on different stacks as long as the question is changed and I have added my world building element. $\endgroup$
    – user69935
    Apr 21, 2020 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ It'd make for a much easier transition to interstellar travel/colonisation (If it can). $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2020 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ Very closely related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/117307/627. That said, I think it's not a duplicate; - deals with less dense galaxies and requires at least 100 Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. The requirements here seem looser. Plus, that's about a galaxy with only a few stars - there are many more here, just crammed together very tightly. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Apr 21, 2020 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not an astronomer, but I thought the main concern with high densities of stars is the likelihood of supernovas periodically wiping out habitable worlds. Does anyone know the math for this? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactic_habitable_zone see section on catastrophic events. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 21, 2020 at 20:57

2 Answers 2


Sure. Not a whole lot, but you'll get a decent number.

Beer et al. 2004 present a formula for calculating the mean time before a star passes within a distance $b_{\text{min}}$ of another star:

$$\tau=7\times10^8\left(\frac{n}{10^5\text{ pc}^{-3}}\right)^{-1}\left(\frac{b_{\text{min}}}{\text{AU}}\right)^{-1}\left(\frac{M}{M_{\odot}}\right)^{-1}\frac{v_{\infty}}{10\text{ km s}^{-1}}\text{ years}$$

where $n$ is the local stellar number density, $M$ is the combined mass of the stars and planet, and $v_{\infty}$ is the velocity of the intruding star when it is far away.

It looks like M60-UCD1 has a number density of $n\sim3.4\times10^3$ per cubic parsec. Let's say the star and the perturber are both red dwarfs (hence the orbiting planet can be tightly bound and still remain in the parent star's habitable zone). Say the planet will be severely perturbed if $b_{\text{min}}=100\text{ AU}$. A decent estimate of $M$ is $M\approx0.4M_{\odot}$. We then get $\tau\approx5\times10^8$ years. This may be a bit conservative - I suspect that $b_{\text{min}}$ could be smaller by a factor of a few - so we'll maybe increase this to about 1 billion years.

(I should add that I used a number density from Wikipedia, if we use yours (the number density can be found from the mean separation as roughly $n\sim l^{-3}$), we can a timescale lower by a factor of about 2. That's not terrible. Factors of 2 are often ignorable in astronomy. An order of magnitude difference - well, that would be problematic.)

A billion years or so isn't bad. Not a significantly short time. Life took a couple billion years to develop on Earth, but that's not necessarily representative of all planets. Besides, this is merely an average timescale. Plenty of planets in the galaxy will be disrupted sooner, and plenty will be disrupted later, if at all. Yes, they could form, and yes, a number would survive long enough for life to develop, if it had the chance to begin.

How many planets?

M60-UCD1 has a stellar mass of about 200 million stellar masses. Let's say that translates into 300 million stars. Maybe 10% of those form planets. You now have about 30 million planets. Now, the majority of these stars will be red dwarfs; you'll see comparatively few Sun-like stars - low-mass stars are simply much more likely to form. If even 1% of those have planets that survive a couple times longer than expected, you should have a few hundred thousands of planets, most around red dwarfs. If even 1% of these are habitable, you still have thousands of systems that may develop life. I'll definitely need to update this section with some literature-supported numbers, but I'll note that I was very conservative, I think, with some of these numbers.

Supernovae may not be a problem

Now, we still have one question to answer, which DWKrauss pointed out earlier: What about nearby supernovae? The minimum distance for a typical supernova to have severe impacts is in the vicinity of 8 parsecs. Given the above number density, there should be about 1.78 million stars within that distance. For a Milky Way-like present-day mass function, that should produce about 7-8 stars which will become supernovae - not great!

That said, that's an overestimate. Recent work (Dabringhausen et al. 2008, Mieske & Kroupa 2008) indicates that ultracompact dwarfs have an extremely high mass-to-light ratio. Unless there's a high proportion of nonluminous matter (possibly dark matter - that hypothesis for the $M/L$ ratio hasn't been ruled out), that means that our stellar population models are wrong. Now, this in turn has two explanations. The first is that there are plenty of dim stellar remnants - neutron stars, black holes, etc. - floating around. After all, many of these galaxies are old, and unless something triggers a new round of star formation, many massive stars exploded long ago. If there's little star formation, then our estimate of the supernova threat was an overestimate.

The other possibility is also enticing. It holds that the mass function is what's called bottom-heavy - in other words, there's an extreme number of low-mass stars. One big reason that's possible is that ultracompact dwarfs are nothing like the Milky Way, and it's quite likely that their mass functions are quite different from ours. A bottom-heavy mass function would explain the observed $M/L$ ratios well - and would indicate that our estimate for nearby supernova-producing stars is way too large.

  • $\begingroup$ Oh thats interesting thanks. some quickly evolving planet hoppers could exist. I read on your previous answer you also mention the exoplanet methuselah in a globular cluster, that brings up some possibly interesting scenarios in a slightly dense area also. $\endgroup$
    – user69935
    Apr 21, 2020 at 14:17

1/20th of a lightyear is within the extension of the Oort cloud.

The Oort cloud is thought to occupy a vast space from somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 au (0.03 and 0.08 ly)

Quite surely planets might form in such a closely packed galaxy, but due to the close proximity with other stars I highly doubt they would be

  • on stable orbit


  • not subject to constant bombardment by space rocks

for a time long enough to allow life as we know it to develop.

This without even taking into account the lethal shower of radiation occurring when a neighbor star goes supernova and flashfries the closeby systems.

  • $\begingroup$ Ah that's a shame, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – user69935
    Apr 21, 2020 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ Would an Oort cloud even form in the first place ? I'm inclined to think the "left overs" that form an Oort cloud would be dispersed before forming into interstellar space. It may be that the stars are closer on average but that would make the odds of this debris hitting anything very small. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2020 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG true, Oort cloud as we know it won't form. Instead, me might have an "Oort soup" of objects shared between many stars. Those objects won't have any stable orbit and would be constantly invading inner regions of star systems. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Apr 21, 2020 at 16:36

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