A Star Passed Through the Solar System Just 70,000 Years Ago

Astronomers have reported the discovery of a star that passed within the outer reaches of our Solar System just 70,000 years ago, when early humans were beginning to take a foothold here on Earth. The stellar flyby was likely close enough to have influenced the orbits of comets in the outer Oort Cloud, but Neandertals and Cro Magnons – our early ancestors – were not in danger. But now astronomers are ready to look for more stars like this one.

A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz's Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)
A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester, Illustration-T.Reyes)

Lead author Eric Mamajek from the University of Rochester and collaborators report in The Closest Known Flyby Of A Star To The Solar System (published in Astrophysical Journal on February 12, 2015) that “the flyby of this system likely caused negligible impact on the flux of long-period comets, the recent discovery of this binary highlights that dynamically important Oort Cloud perturbers may be lurking among nearby stars.”

The star, named Scholz’s star, was just 8/10ths of a light year at closest approach to the Sun. In comparison, the nearest known star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years.

While the internet has been rife with threads and accusations of a Nemesis star that is approaching the inner Solar System and is somehow being “hidden” by NASA, this small red dwarf star with a companion represents the real thing.

In 1984, the paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski postulated that a dim dwarf star, now widely known on the internet as the Nemesis Star, was in a very long period Solar orbit. The elliptical orbit brought the proposed star into the inner Solar System every 26 million years, causing a rain of comets and mass extinctions on that time period. By no coincidence, because of the sheer numbers of red dwarfs throughout the galaxy, Scholz’s star nearly fits such a scenario. Nemesis was proposed to be in a orbit extending 95,000 A.U. compared to Scholz’s nearest flyby distance of 50,000 A.U. Recent studies of impact rates on Earth, the Moon and Mars have discounted the existence of a Nemesis star (see New Impact Rate Count Lays Nemesis Theory to Rest, Universe Today, 8/1/2011)

But Scholz’s star — a real-life Oort Cloud perturber — was a small red dwarf star star with a M9 spectral classification. M-class stars are the most common star in our galaxy and likely the whole Universe, as 75% of all stars are of this type. Scholz’s is just 15% of the mass of our Sun. Furthermore, Scholz’s is a binary star system with the secondary being a brown dwarf of class T5. Brown Dwarfs are believed to be plentiful in the Universe but due to their very low intrinsic brightness, they are very difficult to discover … except, as in this case, as companions to brighter stars.

The astronomers reported that their survey of new astrometric data of nearby stars identified Scholz’s as an object of interest. The star’s transverse velocity was very low, that is, the stars sideways motion. Additionally, they recognized that its radial velocity – motion towards or away from us, was quite high. For Scholz’s, the star was speeding directly away from our Solar System. How close could Scholz’s star have been to our system in the past? They needed more accurate data.

The collaborators turned to two large telescopes in the southern hemisphere. Spectrographs were employed on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in South Africa and the Magellan telescope at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. With more accurate trangental and radial velocities, the researchers were able to calculate the trajectory, accounting for the Sun’s and Scholz’s motion around the Milky Way galaxy.

Scholz’s star is an active star and the researchers added that while it was nearby, it shined at a dimly of about 11th magnitude but eruptions and flares on its surface could have raised its brightness to visible levels and could have been seen as a “new” star by primitive humans of the time.

The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)
The relative sizes of the inner Solar System, Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. (Credit: NASA, William Crochot)

At present, Scholz’s star is 20 light years away, one of the 70 closest stars to our Solar System. However, the astronomers calculated, with a 98% certainty, that Scholz’s passed within 0.5 light years, approximately 50,000 Astronomical Units (A.U.) of the Sun.

An A.U. is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun and 50,000 is an important mile marker in our Solar System. It is the outer reaches of the Oort Cloud where billions of comets reside in cold storage, in orbits that take hundreds of thousands of years to circle the Sun.

With this first extraordinary close encounter discovered, the collaborators of this paper as well as other researchers are planning new searches for “Nemesis” type stars. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and other telescopes within the next decade will bring an incredible array of data sets that will uncover many more red dwarf, brown dwarf and possibly orphan planets roaming in nearby space. Some of these could likewise be traced to past or future near misses to the Sun and Earth system.

Two New Moons for Jupiter

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Advances in technology have lead to the discovery of new planets outside of our Solar System, and now even new moons in our own backyard.

Last September, two satellites – the smallest ever discovered – were found orbiting Jupiter.

That brings the number of Jovian moons to a whopping 66.  The moons – each about 1 km in size – are very distant from Jupiter. It takes the tiny satellites 580 and 726 days to orbit the gas giant.

The discovery could lead us one step closer to understanding the formation and evolution of our solar system. At least that’s the hope of Scott Sheppard, who works at the the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C. It was Sheppard who, with the help of the massive Magellan telescope at Las Campanas, Chile, initially observed the moons.

“The new satellites are part of the outer retrograde swarm of objects around Jupiter. It is likely there are about 100 satellites of this size around Jupiter,” Sheppard said, explaining that Magellan has made it easier to detect objects further away from Earth. “Up until the last decade, the technology wasn’t there to discover these things because they are very small and very faint.”

The two tiny, irregular moons are called S/2011 J1 and S/2011 J2. Thankfully, those names aren’t expected to stick. Once officially confirmed (Sheppard expects it to happen this year), he will have the opportunity to name each. But, Sheppard can’t pick just any moniker. The names, according to the International Astronomical Union, must be related to Jupiter or Zeus, the Roman and Greek mythological figures who served as king of the gods.

Credit: NASA/ESA/E. Karkoschka (U. Arizona)

Maybe that’s why Sheppard hasn’t yet thought of any names for the soon-to-be members of the Jovian moon list. Are there any names that haven’t already been chosen? Europa, Thebe, Io, Callisto, Sinope, Ganymede …

Naming requirements will definitely need to change because, as Sheppard explains, there are a lot more moons to discover around some of our other gas – and ice – giants.

“There are a similar amount of objects orbiting Saturn and Neptune, which are more distant from the Sun,” Sheppard said, citing a survey of the sky conducted by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the early 2000s. “If larger telescopes are built in the future, we’ll be able to discover more of these objects and find out what the objects are like,” Sheppard said.

And finding more of these smaller, distant, irregular satellites is a key to understanding our past.

Here’s why: Irregular satellites are believed to have been captured by their respective planets because the moons typically orbit in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation, and, they also have eccentric and highly inclined orbits.

Those types of moons differ from regular satellites, which are believed to have formed from the same materials that comprise the planet. That’s because the moons tend to have nearly circular orbits, and, they orbit their respective planets in the same direction that the planet rotates.

A planet can temporarily capture an object, i.e. Shoemaker-Levy 9, but in the present time, “a planet has no known efficient mechanism to permanently capture satellites. Thus, outer satellite capture must have occurred near the time of planet formation when the Solar System was not as organized as it is now,” Sheppard said.

“The orbital history of a satellite can be very complex … but understanding where a satellite came from can tell us about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.”

Click here to learn more about the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. For more information about Jovian moons, go to Scott Sheppard’s Jupiter Satellite Page.