Physics & Astronomy

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Astronomers identify the closest known flyby of a star to our solar system: a dim star that passed through the Oort Cloud 70,000 years ago

Artist's conception of Scholz's star

A group of astronomers from the US, Europe, Chile and South Africa have determined that 70,000 years ago a recently discovered dim star is likely to have passed through the solar system’s distant cloud of comets, the Oort Cloud. No other star is known to have ever approached our solar system this close – five times closer than the current closest star, Proxima Centauri.

In a paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, lead author Eric Mamajek from the University of Rochester and his collaborators analyzed the velocity and trajectory of a low-mass star system nicknamed “Scholz’s star.”

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.

The star originally caught Mamajek’s attention during a discussion with co-author Valentin D. Ivanov, from the European Southern Observatory. Scholz’s star had an unusual mix of characteristics: despite being fairly close (“only” 20 light years away), it showed very slow tangential motion, that is, motion across the sky. The radial velocity measurements taken by Ivanov and collaborators, however, showed the star moving almost directly away from the solar system at considerable speed.

“Most stars this nearby show much larger tangential motion,” says Mamajek, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester. “The small tangential motion and proximity initially indicated that the star was most likely either moving towards a future close encounter with the solar system, or it had ‘recently’ come close to the solar system and was moving away. Sure enough, the radial velocity measurements were consistent with it running away from the Sun’s vicinity – and we realized it must have had a close flyby in the past.”

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