Star to get within a trillion miles of Sun in 1.4 million years

Using the precise location and motion data obtained by the space telescope Gaia, astronomers have identified a star that 1.4 million years will come within a trillion miles of the Sun.

That distance puts it well within the outer parts of the theorized Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system. Since the star, Gliese 710, has a mass half that of the Sun, it will thus disturb many objects in that Oort Cloud, causing many to eventually fall sunward and produce a hail of comets several million years later. It will be, for a long time, the brightest object in the night sky, by far.

The data also identified a number of other stars that have in past or will in the future get close to the Sun. The most important result is not that these close approaches occur, but that they have found that they are relatively rare, and even the closest, Gliese 710, never really gets that close.

The universe is big, far bigger than we can really imagine.

A stellar fly-by 70,000 years ago

Astronomers have identified a nearby star, now 20 light years away, that 70,000 years ago flew past the solar system at a distance of only 0.8 light years.

The star’s trajectory suggests that 70,000 years ago it passed roughly 52,000 astronomical units away (or about 0.8 light years, which equals 8 trillion kilometers, or 5 trillion miles). This is astronomically close; our closest neighbor star Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light years distant. In fact, the astronomers explain in the paper that they are 98% certain that it went through what is known as the “outer Oort Cloud” – a region at the edge of the solar system filled with trillions of comets a mile or more across that are thought to give rise to long-period comets orbiting the Sun after their orbits are perturbed.

I feel it necessary to note that the Oort Cloud itself has never been directly observed and only exists theoretically based on the random arrival of comets from the outer solar system.

The Milky Way’s most distant stars

Astronomers have discovered the two most distant stars of the Milky Way.

Both stars are red giants, aging suns that shine so brightly observers can see them from afar. One star is about 890,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces—33 times farther from the Milky Way’s center than we are and well beyond the edge of the galactic disk. The only other Milky Way member at a comparable distance is a small galaxy named Leo I, which orbits ours at a distance of 850,000 light-years. If the star in Pisces revolves on a circular path as fast as we do, it takes some eight billion years to complete a single orbit around the galaxy. That’s more than half the age of the universe.

The other newfound star is about 780,000 light-years distant in the constellation Gemini and more than a million light-years from the other star. For comparison, the previous record-breaking individual star was only about half a million light-years from Earth.

Both stars are so far outside the galaxy’s disk that it is quite possible that they are not part of the Milky Way at all.

Astronomers have found four different binary star systems with the stars orbiting so close to each other that they complete their orbits in less than four hours, orbits that astronomers had previously believed “impossible.”

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have found four different binary star systems with the stars orbiting so close to each other that they complete their orbits in less than four hours, orbits that astronomers had previously believed “impossible.”

Want to see an asteroid eclipse a star?

transit of Betelgeuse

On January 2, 2012, an asteroid is going to transit across the face of Betelgeuse. And if you live in Europe, own a very sensitive telescope, look close and don’t blink, you might be able to see it!

This is all according to a preprint paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph preprint website, written by scientist Costantino Sigismondi of the Galileo Ferraris Institute and International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics in Rome. You can download the paper here [pdf].

The transit itself will only last 3.6 seconds, and will only be visible along a narrow swath crossing southern India and moving across the Middle East, through parts of Italy, France, and the southwestern most tips of England and Ireland. A map of this path is below the fold.
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The future Nemesis from space

From the American Astronomical Society meeting this week:

A team of astronomers, using the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, calculated the galactic orbits of nearly 40,000 low mass stars. These stars are generally M dwarfs, cool, not very bright, and thus generally somewhat close to the Sun since if they are too far away we would not see them. You can read the abstract here, and download their full poster here [pdf].

For the astronomers, the data told them a great deal about the orbital properties of these stars. Though a majority are in circular orbits between 20 to 30 thousand light years from the galactic center, a small minority are in extremely eccentric orbits that travel far out into the galactic halo, as much 260,000 light years. A few others dive inward, getting within 6000 light years of the galactic center.

What made this poster stand out to me, however, was this quote from the abstract:

In addition, we have identified a number of stars that will pass very close to the Sun within the next [billion years]. These stars form the “Nemesis” family of orbits. Potential encounters with these stars could have a significant impact on orbits of Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt members as well as the planets. We comment on the probability of a catastrophic encounter within the next [billion years].

All told, they found that 18 low-mass cool M dwarf stars that will eventually pass close to the Sun. One star, SDSS J112612.07+152517.6, an M3 star that is about 2,300 light years away, is in an orbit that has it moving right towards us at about 90,000 miles per hour. Its mass is less than half that of the Sun, about 0.4 solar masses. This figure from the poster roughly illustrates the star’s position relative to our solar system over the next billion years:

Nemesis star

The star itself is shown in the inset. The red curve shows its calculated distance from the Sun over time, with the black area above and below showing the uncertainties of the calculation. As you can see, every hundred million years or so the distance between this star and the Sun shrinks, with the very very very rare possibility that the distance will sometimes shrink to zero!

With 18 stars each doing this every few 100 million years or so, the average time between close approaches is about 5 million years. These results suggest that another star passes close enough to our solar system frequently enough to not only disturb the comets in the Oort cloud, but also possibly affect the orbits of the planets in the outer solar system and Kuiper belt. One wonders, for example, if such an event had some influence on Pluto’s strange orbit.

The variability of stars according to Kepler

More data from Kepler! In a paper [pdf] published today on the astro-ph website, scientists outline Kepler’s census of the variability of stars. Key quote from the abstract:

We have separated the sample in 129,000 dwarfs and 17,000 giants, and further sub-divided, the luminosity classes into temperature bins corresponding approximately to the spectral classes A, F, G, K, and M. G-dwarfs are found to be the most stable with < 20% being variable. The variability fraction increases to 30% for the K dwarfs, 40% for the M and F dwarfs, and 70% for the A-dwarfs. At the precision of Kepler, > 95% of K and G giants are variable.