June 18, 2019

A Close Pre-Historic Brush with Scholzís Star

An artist’s conception of Scholz’s Star and its brown dwarf companion passing through the outer solar system.

(Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester).

A fascinating announcement out of the Astrophysical Journal caught our eye last week, as researchers announced that a newly discovered star made a close pass through our very own solar system some 70,000 years ago.

The suspect is known as Scholzís Star, and currently lies 20 light years away in the constellation Monoceros. Scholzís Star was identified late last year by astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz, and turned up in the WISE infrared all-sky survey as the phone number designation WISE 0720-0846 (the numbers refer to the position of Scholzís Star in the sky as right ascension 7 hours 20 minutes and declination 8 degrees and 46 minutes south).

At 0.82 light years (120,000 A.U.s), this stands as the most recent and closest passage of a star to our solar system known. †This also comes on the heels of the announcement last month that the star HIP 85605 may make a close pass about 0.1 to 0.7 light years from the Earth a quarter to half a million years from now.

Sure, itís a dangerous universe out there, and stars come and go as our solar system circles the core of our Milky Way once every quarter of a billion years.

Today, Scholzís Star only shines at magnitude +18.3, and isnít much to look at. In fact, this is one of the prime reasons it has eluded detection until now. Researchers estimate that Scholzís Star shined at +11th magnitude on closest approach to the Earth, though we get +6th magnitude using our tried-and-true back of the envelope calculations.

A M-type red dwarf, Scholzís star is also known to have a T-type brown dwarf companion about 70 Jupiter masses in size.

70,000 years ago is a mere blink of an eye in the scale of the Earthís 4.5 billion year history.† The last Ice Age wouldíve been well underway, and Sirius had just ascended to the title of ‘the skies’ brightest star,í that it enjoys today about 20,000 years prior .

What else lies out there? Certainly, missions such as NASAís NEOWISE and the European Space Agenciesí Gaia observatory launched in 2014 are busy scouring the skies for more suspect stars. Brown and red dwarfs are much more plentiful than bright stars, and it’s still not out of the realm of possibility that a brown dwarf could still currently lie closer to our solar system than Alpha Centuari at just over 4 light years distant.

And this discussion is a separate and scientific one from the tales of Tyche, Nemesis, and Nibiru that have dotted conspiracy sites from before 2012 when the Mayan non-pocalypse failed to produce.

But thereís always 20,012 A.D. Researchers are confident that Scholzís Star did little to perturb the outer Oort Cloud, and our distant ancestors may only see a brief uptick in cometary activity in the inner solar systemÖ but then again, thereís always the aforementioned and recently discovered HIP 85605 set to pass as close as 0.5 light years distant 300,000 years from now, which may just topple Sirius as the brightest star in the sky for a few millennia as it shines at magnitude -3.

More to come!

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