Space is huuuuuge, but it gets a tiny bit smaller each time we discover something new that we can name, classify, and tell everyone about. The latest is exciting, because it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen anything like it. It’s a new star system — a field of stars revolving around one another — and it’s the closest one we’ve found in nearly a century. It’s also the third-closest to our Sun. While we’ve been busy demoting our own Solar System’s planets into ice dwarfs, then letting William Shatner name the moons, this binary system’s been floating out there beyond our knowledge. Until now.
To be clear, we — and by “we” I mean astrophysics associate professor Kevin Luhman of Penn State University – only found two stars. But that’s a still big deal because we haven’t made a discovery like this since 1916.
These two stars are actually “brown dwarfs,” cooler substars which look more like massive Jupiters but are smaller than small stars. They’re too low in mass to blaze with the hydrogen fusion we normally associate with stars. They’re calling this binary system WISE J104915.57-531906, because it rolls nicely off the tongue. Also, because it was discovered using a series of images taken by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite during a 13-month period. And because NASA owns the satellite and NASA likes numbers.
To give you an idea of just how far away these two stars are, have a look at this diagram. Note that the Oort Cloud encircling our Sun basically represents the outer edge of our Solar System. Far indeed, but not so far that we didn’t spy it with our trusty, space-flung gadgets.
Luhman offers us a sense of distance concerning his find:
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. It will be an excellent hunting ground for planets because it is very close to Earth, which makes it a lot easier to see any planets orbiting either of the brown dwarfs.
He also said that in the distant future, WISE J104915.57-531906 could be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions since it’s the third-closest star system. Which makes me think we need to update a lot of our sci-fi novels to include mention of these brown dwarfs. Of course, we still need to be able to send a manned expedition to, say, the next planet over from us. But they’re working on that.
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