The star HIP 85605 until recently seemed more interesting than it may now turn out to be. In a recent paper, Coryn Bailer-Jones (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg) noted that the star in the constellation Hercules had a high probability of coming close enough to our Solar System in the far future (240,000 to 470,000 years from now) that it would pass through the Oort Cloud, potentially disrupting comets there. The possibility of a pass as close as .13 light years (8200 AU) was there, but Bailer-Jones cautioned that distance measurements of this star could be incorrect. His paper on nearby stellar passes thus leaves the HIP 85605 issue unresolved.
Enter Eric Mamajek (University of Rochester) and company. Working with data from the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the Magellan telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, Mamajek showed that the distance to HIP 85605 has been underestimated by a factor of ten. As Bailer-Jones seems to have suspected, the new measurement takes the star on a trajectory that does not bring it within the Oort Cloud. But in the same paper, the team names an interesting system called Scholz’s Star as a candidate for a close pass in the past.
Studying the star’s tangential velocity (motion across the sky) as well as radial velocity data, the team found that despite being relatively close at 20 light years, Scholz’s Star shows little tangential velocity. That would imply an interesting encounter ahead, or one that had already happened. Mamajek explains:
“Most stars this nearby show much larger tangential motion. 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.”
Image: Artist’s conception of Scholz’s star and its brown dwarf companion (foreground) during its flyby of the solar system 70,000 years ago. The Sun (left, background) would have appeared as a brilliant star. The pair is now about 20 light years away. Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.
The paper on this work, recently published in the Astrophysical Journal, determines the star’s trajectory, one that shows that about 70,000 years ago, it would have passed some 52,000 AU from the Sun. This works out to about 0.82 light years, or 7.8 trillion kilometers, quite a bit closer than Proxima Centauri, and probably close enough to pass through the outer Oort Cloud. The star was within 100,000 AU of the Sun for a period of roughly 10,000 years.
Scholz’s star (W0720) is a low-mass object in the constellation Monoceros also tagged WISE J072003.20-084651.2 and only recently discovered (by Ralf-Dieter Scholz in 2014) thanks to its dimness in optical wavelengths, its proximity to the galactic plane and its low proper motion. Adaptive optics imaging and high resolution spectroscopy has demonstrated that the star is actually a binary, an M-dwarf with a companion at 0.8 AU that is probably a brown dwarf.
The question that immediately comes to mind is what kind of object the Scholz’s star system would have presented in the night sky some 70,000 years ago. The answer is not dramatic, for at its closest approach the binary would have had an apparent magnitude in the range of 11.4 (note: there is a typo in the paper, as noted here, which had specified an apparent magnitude of 10.3). This is five magnitudes, or a factor of 100 times, fainter than the faintest naked eye stars. But the paper notes that M-dwarfs like this one are often given to flare activity that might have made Scholz’s star a brighter object. From the paper:
If W0720 experienced occasional flares similar to those of the active M8 star SDSS J022116.84+194020.4 (Schmidt et al. 2014), then the star may have been rarely visible with the naked eye from Earth (V < 6; ?V < ?4) for minutes or hours during the flare events. Hence, while the binary system was too dim to see with the naked eye in its quiescent state during its flyby of the solar system ?70 kya, flares by the M9.5 primary may have provided visible short-lived transients visible to our ancestors.
And take a look at this graph, which Eric Mamajek published on Twitter yesterday.
As you can see, Scholz’s Star was moving out. If it had been visible, what would ancient skywatchers have made of it? We also have to wonder what other close encounters our Solar System may have had with other stars. Note this point from the paper about M-dwarfs:
Past systematic searches for stars with close flybys to the solar system have been understandably focused on the Hipparcos astrometric catalog (García Sánchez et al. 1999; Bailer-Jones 2014), however it contains relatively few M dwarfs relative to their cosmic abundance. Searches in the Gaia astrometric catalog for nearby M dwarfs with small proper motions and large parallaxes (i.e. with small tangential velocities) will likely yield addition candidates.
So much still to learn about M-dwarfs!
The paper is Mamajek et al., “The Closest Known Flyby of a Star to the Solar System,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 800 (2015), L17 (preprint). The Bailer-Jones paper discussed above is “Close Encounters of the Stellar Kind,” in press at Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint). For more on Bailer-Jones, see Stars Passing Close to the Sun.