Changing Planet

Surprisingly Close Star System Discovered

Looks like astronomers may have new hunting grounds to search for exoplanets , and it’s  close–  in fact it’s just in our local interstellar neighborhood.  A new-found star system at only 6.5 light years away now ranks as the third nearest to our solar system and the closest to be discovered since 1917.

The new pair of stars are both classified as brown dwarfs– cool, dim objects that actually resemble planets more than stars. (Related: “Dimmest Stars in Universe Spotted?”)

While they do give off heat and have chemical properties like ordinary stars like our Sun, these weird objects  are often referred to as ‘failed stars’ since they don’t quite have enough mass that would allow them to be crushed by gravity so that thermonuclear reactions can ignite the hydrogen in their cores. (See also: Coldest Star Found—No Hotter Than Fresh Coffee)

The strange star system, dubbed unromantically WISE J104915.57-531906,  was stumbled upon by Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Penn State University while studying a map of the entire sky stitched together from 13 months of observations obtained by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite. What clued him in was that one particular star point appeared to have a rapid motion visible through time-lapse images.  (Related: First Pictures from WISE telescope)

Luhman decided to  extrapolate the star’s movement back in time and found that it was indeed captured but not identified by other surveys as far back as 1978.

“It was a lot of detective work,” Luhman said in a press statement. “There are billions of infrared points of light across the sky, and the mystery is which one- if any of them- could be a star that is very close to our solar system.”

While astronomical distances are vast, this star system is really quite nearby when it comes to our stellar surroundings , as Luhman points out in a press statement.

“The distance to this brown dwarf pair is 6.5 light years-  so close that Earth’s television transmissions from 2006 are now arriving there,” Luhman said.

This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems that are closest to the Sun. The year when each star was discovered to be a neighbor of the Sun is indicated. The new binary system is the third nearest system to the Sun, and the closest one found in a century. Credit: Janella Williams, Penn State University.
This diagram illustrates the locations of the star systems that are closest to the Sun. The year when each star was discovered to be a neighbor of the Sun is indicated. The new binary system is the third nearest system to the Sun, and the closest one found in a century. Credit: Janella Williams, Penn State University.

 

Comparatively the second-closest star, Barnard’s star, is 6.0 light years from the Sun while our nearest neighboring star system consists of Alpha Centauri at 4.4 light years, and its fainter companion 4.2 light year distant Proxima Centauri.

The proximity of this stellar pair, he says, may even make them favorable for us to send star-ships there one day.

“…in the distant future it might be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions outside our solar system.”

But for now the powerful eyes of ground based telescopes like the Gemini in Hawaii and Chile, and the future James Webb Space Telescope will search for any circling planets around these brown dwarfs.
The star system discovery will be published in a paper for Astrophysical Journal Letters.

 

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.

  • wfhn

    Another totally misleading artists representation. These two brown dwarfs are 3 AU’s apart, and would be totally invisible without starlight to light them up. Also, the sun would only be a pinpoint of faint light.

  • wfhn

    Another totally misleading artists representation. These two brown dwarfs are 3 AU’s apart, and would be totally invisible without starlight to light them up. Also, the sun would only be a pinpoint of faint light.

  • pavan

    In the distant future it might be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions outside our solar system.

  • pavan

    In the distant future it might be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions outside our solar system.

  • Gina

    wow! I hope to see star-ships sent in this lifetime. it’s amazing, there has to be some kind of other lifeforms out there.

  • Gina

    wow! I hope to see star-ships sent in this lifetime. it’s amazing, there has to be some kind of other lifeforms out there.

  • Mayank Bharati

    this proves that one day we will also find life very close to our solar system. Glad to see such discoveries which gives us hope!!!

  • Mayank Bharati

    this proves that one day we will also find life very close to our solar system. Glad to see such discoveries which gives us hope!!!

  • k.alam

    Funny. These astronomical findings have virtually no meaning for ordinary mortals. It’s possible ramification is in far distant future always. Still these are publicised, widely read, rarely understood fully but always proves to be fassinating for a very large number of peaple. This reminds me of great late Carl Sagan who said “we are star stuff”. That might be the reason the subject is so inchanting and clear sky with stars is so magical for everybody. Experiencing star light in pitch dark moonless nights in electricity free area is an spirit lifting unforgettable experience.

  • k.alam

    Funny. These astronomical findings have virtually no meaning for ordinary mortals. It’s possible ramification is in far distant future always. Still these are publicised, widely read, rarely understood fully but always proves to be fassinating for a very large number of peaple. This reminds me of great late Carl Sagan who said “we are star stuff”. That might be the reason the subject is so inchanting and clear sky with stars is so magical for everybody. Experiencing star light in pitch dark moonless nights in electricity free area is an spirit lifting unforgettable experience.

  • ramalingam venkatraju

    how clear picture, surprrise to see such clearity, from where it was photographed,,wonderful

  • ramalingam venkatraju

    how clear picture, surprrise to see such clearity, from where it was photographed,,wonderful

  • leslie

    My son was given a science project in school,he is only a 5th grader by the way. His project was on supernova’s and he had to draw and color on a poster a picture of a supernova and explain in dialogs about it. Then he had to show how a supernova worked. He did the poster which I thought was great and he went to school and when it was his turn to describe his project he showed his poster then explained with a balloon how a supernova happens. His teacher gave him a zero on both! She said she wanted him to show how a supernova worked by some experiment…What could he have done besides the balloon? Any help will be greatly appreciated.

  • leslie

    My son was given a science project in school,he is only a 5th grader by the way. His project was on supernova’s and he had to draw and color on a poster a picture of a supernova and explain in dialogs about it. Then he had to show how a supernova worked. He did the poster which I thought was great and he went to school and when it was his turn to describe his project he showed his poster then explained with a balloon how a supernova happens. His teacher gave him a zero on both! She said she wanted him to show how a supernova worked by some experiment…What could he have done besides the balloon? Any help will be greatly appreciated.

  • Ricardo Erick Rebêlo

    Not a great surprise. Almost 90% of the stars are brown dwarfs. And they are very hard to detect.

    Actually, it’s expected much more to be found.

  • Ricardo Erick Rebêlo

    Not a great surprise. Almost 90% of the stars are brown dwarfs. And they are very hard to detect.

    Actually, it’s expected much more to be found.

  • Vincent Ruello

    My wife and I have discovered a new star system which we have called Melaia 1 after my wife. It has 9 multiple stars shaped as a cross incredible please google search
    new star system discovered melaia 1

  • Vincent Ruello

    My wife and I have discovered a new star system which we have called Melaia 1 after my wife. It has 9 multiple stars shaped as a cross incredible please google search
    new star system discovered melaia 1

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