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.

“Super Saturn” Has an Enormous Ring System and Maybe Even Exomoons

Astronomers watching the repeated and drawn-out dimming of a relatively nearby Sun-like star have interpreted their observations to indicate an eclipse by a gigantic exoplanet’s complex ring system, similar to Saturn’s except much, much bigger. What’s more, apparent gaps and varying densities of the rings imply the presence of at least one large exomoon, and perhaps even more in the process of formation!

J1407 is a main-sequence orange dwarf star about 434 light-years away*. Over the course of 57 days in spring of 2007 J1407 underwent a “complex series of deep eclipses,” which an international team of astronomers asserts is the result of a ring system around the massive orbiting exoplanet J1407b.

“This planet is much larger than Jupiter or Saturn, and its ring system is roughly 200 times larger than Saturn’s rings are today,” said Eric Mamajek, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York. “You could think of it as kind of a super Saturn.”

The observations were made through the SuperWASP program, which uses ground-based telescopes to watch for the faint dimming of stars due to transiting exoplanets.

The first study of the eclipses and the likely presence of the ring system was published in 2012, led by Mamajek. Further analysis by the team estimates the number of main ring structures to be 37, with a large and clearly-defined gap located at about 0.4 AU (61 million km/37.9 million miles) out from the “super Saturn” that may harbor a satellite nearly as large as Earth, with an orbital period of two years.

Watch an animation of the team’s analysis of the J1407/J1407b eclipse below:

The entire expanse of J1407b’s surprisingly dense rings stretches for 180 million km (112 million miles), and could contain an Earth’s worth of mass.

“If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b,” said Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and lead author of the new study, “they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full Moon.”

Saturn's relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)
Saturn’s relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

These observations could be akin to a look back in time to see what Saturn and Jupiter were like as their own system of moons were first forming.

“The planetary science community has theorized for decades that planets like Jupiter and Saturn would have had, at an early stage, disks around them that then led to the formation of satellites,” according to Mamajek. “However, until we discovered this object in 2012, no one had seen such a ring system. This is the first snapshot of satellite formation on million-kilometer scales around a substellar object.”

J1407b itself is estimated to contain 10-40 times the mass of Jupiter – technically, it might even be a brown dwarf.

Further observations will be required to observe another transit of J1407b and obtain more data on its rings and other physical characteristics as its orbit is about ten Earth-years long. (Luckily 2017 isn’t that far off!)

The team’s report has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: University of Rochester. Image credit: Ron Miller.

Note: the originally published version of this article described J1407 at 116 light-years away. It’s actually 133 parsecs, which equates to about 434 light-years. Edited above. – JM

New Study Shows Cosmic Rays Could Cause Alzheimer’s

Humans explore Mars in “Distant Shores,” an illustration by NASA artist Pat Rawlins

Cosmic rays from deep space could pose serious health risks to future astronauts on long-duration missions to Mars — even bringing on the memory-destroying symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the results of a new study from the University of Rochester Medical Center.

While NASA has its sights set on the human exploration of Mars within the next several decades, even with the best propulsion technology currently available such a mission would take about three years. Within that time, crew members would be constantly exposed to large amounts of radiation that we are protected from here by Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. Some of this radiation comes in the form of protons from the Sun and can be blocked by adequate spacecraft shielding materials, but a much bigger danger comes from heavy high-energy particles that are constantly whipping across the galaxy, shot out of the hearts of exploding giant stars.

“Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them. One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a six-foot block of lead or concrete.” 

– M. Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D.

S047While health risks from these high-mass, high-charged (HZE) particles have long been known, the exact nature of the damages they can cause to human physiology is still being researched — even more so now that Mars and asteroid exploration is on NASA’s short list.

Now, a team from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) in New York has announced the results of their research linking high-energy radiation — just like what would be encountered during a trip to Mars — to the degeneration of brain function, and possibly even the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Galactic cosmic radiation poses a significant threat to future astronauts,” said M. Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and the senior author of the study. “The possibility that radiation exposure in space may give rise to health problems such as cancer has long been recognized. However, this study shows for the first time that exposure to radiation levels equivalent to a mission to Mars could produce cognitive problems and speed up changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

In particular the team focused on iron ions, which are blasted into space by supernovae and are massive enough to punch through a spacecraft’s protective shielding.

“Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them,” O’Banion said. “One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a six-foot block of lead or concrete.”

advances-in-treating-alzheimers-afBy exposing lab mice to increasing levels of radiation and measuring their cognitive ability the researchers were able to determine the neurologically destructive nature of high-energy particles, which caused the animals to more readily fail cognitive tasks. In addition the exposed mice developed accumulations of a protein plaque within their brains, beta amyloid, the spread of which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said O’Banion. “This is yet another factor that NASA, which is clearly concerned about the health risks to its astronauts, will need to take into account as it plans future missions.”

Read more: Space Travel is Bad For Your Eyes

While Mars explorers could potentially protect themselves from cosmic radiation by setting up bases in caves, empty lava tubes or beneath rocky ledges, which would offer the sort of physical shielding necessary to stop dangerous HZE particles, that would obviously present a new set of challenges to astronauts working in an already alien environment. And there’s always the trip there (and back again) during which time a crew would be very much exposed.

While this won’t — and shouldn’t — prevent a Mars mission from eventually taking place, it does add yet another element of danger that will need to be factored in and either dealt with from both health and engineering standpoints… or accepted as an unavoidable risk by all involved, including the public.


How much risk will be considered acceptable for the human exploration of Mars — and beyond? (NASA/Pat Rawlings)

Read more on the URMC news page here, and see the full experiment report here.

Illustrations for NASA by Pat Rawlings. See more of Rawling’s artwork here. Inset image: comparison of human brains without and with Alzheimer’s. Source: WHYY.