Interstellar objects are much in the news these days, as witness the flurry of research on ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov. But we have to be cautious as we look at objects on hyperbolic orbits, avoiding the assumption that any of these are necessarily from another star. Spanish astronomers Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos dug several years ago into the question of objects on hyperbolic orbits, noting that some of these may well have origins much closer to home. Let me quote their 2018 paper on this:

There are mechanisms capable of generating hyperbolic objects other than interstellar interlopers. They include close encounters with the known planets or the Sun, for objects already traversing the Solar system inside the trans-Neptunian belt; but also secular perturbations induced by the Galactic disc or impulsive interactions with passing stars, for more distant bodies (see e.g. Fouchard et al. 2011, 2017; Królikowska & Dybczy?ski 2017). These last two processes have their sources beyond the Solar system and may routinely affect members of the Oort cloud (Oort 1950), driving them into inbound hyperbolic paths that may cross the inner Solar system, making them detectable from the Earth (see e.g. Stern 1987).

Scholz’s Star Leaves Its Mark

So much is going on in the outer reaches of the Solar System! In the 2018 paper, the two astronomers looked for patterns in how hyperbolic objects move, noting that anything approaching us from the far reaches of the Solar System seems to come from a well-defined location in the sky known as its radiant (also called its antapex). Given the mechanisms for producing objects on hyperbolic orbits, they identify distinctive coordinate and velocity signatures among these radiants.

Work like this relies on the past orbital evolution of hyperbolic objects using computer modeling and statistical analyses of the radiants, and I wouldn’t have dug quite so deeply into this arcane work except that it tells us something about objects that are coming under renewed scrutiny, the stars that occasionally pass close to the Solar System and may disrupt the Oort Cloud. Such passing stars are an intriguing subject in their own right and even factor into studies of galactic diffusion; i.e., how a civilization might begin to explore the galaxy by using close stellar passes as stepping stones.

But more about that in a moment, because I want to wrap up this 2018 paper before moving on to a later paper, likewise from the de la Fuente Marcos team, on close stellar passes and the intriguing Gliese 710. Its close pass is to happen in the distant future, but we have one well characterized pass that the 2018 paper addresses, that of Scholz’s Star, which is known to have made the most recent flyby of the Solar System when it moved through the Oort Cloud 70,000 years ago. In their work on minor objects with long orbital periods and extreme orbital eccentricity, the researchers find a “significant overdensity of high-speed radiants toward the constellation of Gemini” that may be the result of the passage of this star.

This is useful stuff, because as we untangle prior close passes, we learn more about the dynamics of objects in the outer Solar System, which in turn may help us uncover information about still undiscovered objects, including the hypothesized Planet 9, that may lurk in the outer regions and may have caused its own gravitational disruptions.

Before digging into the papers I write about today, I hadn’t realized just how many objects – presumably comets – are known to be on hyperbolic orbits. The astronomers work with the orbits of 339 of these, all with nominal heliocentric eccentricity > 1, using data from JPL’s Solar System Dynamics Group Small-Body Database and the Minor Planet Center Database. For a minor object moving with an inbound velocity of 1 kilometer per second, which is the Solar System escape velocity at about 2000 AU, the de la Fuente Marcos team runs calculations going back 100,000 years to examine the modeled object’s orbital evolution all the way out to 20,000 AU, which is in the outer Oort Cloud.

That overdensity of radiants toward Gemini that I mentioned above does seem to implicate the Scholz’s Star flyby. If so, then a close stellar pass that occurred 70,000 years ago may have left traces we can still see in the orbits of these minor Solar System bodies today. The uncertainties in the analysis of other stellar flybys relate to the fact that past encounters with other stars are not well determined, with Scholz’s Star being the prominent exception. Given the lack of evidence about other close passes, the de la Fuente Marcos team acknowledges the possibility of other perturbers.

Image: This is Figure 3 from the paper. Caption: Distribution of radiants of known hyperbolic minor bodies in the sky. The radiant of 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) is represented by a pink star, those objects with radiant’s velocity > ?1?km?s?1 are plotted as blue filled circles, the ones in the interval (?1.5, ?1.0) km s?1 are shown as pink triangles, and those < ? 1.5?km?s?1 appear as goldenrod triangles. The current position of the binary star WISE J072003.20-084651.2, also known as Scholz’s star, is represented by a red star, the convergent brown arrows represent its motion and uncertainty as computed by Mamajek et al. (2015). The ecliptic is plotted in green. The Galactic disc, which is arbitrarily defined as the region confined between Galactic latitude ?5° and 5°, is outlined in black, the position of the Galactic Centre is represented by a filled black circle; the region enclosed between Galactic latitude ?30° and 30°? appears in grey. Data source: JPL’s SSDG SBDB. Credit: Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos.

The Coming of Gliese 710

Let’s now run the clock forward, looking at what we might expect to happen in our next close stellar passage. Gliese 710 is an interesting K7 dwarf in the constellation Serpens Cauda that occasionally pops up in our discussions because of its motion toward the Sun at about 24 kilometers per second. Right now it’s a little over 60 light years away, but give it time – in about 1.3 million years, the star should close to somewhere in the range of 10,000 AU, which is about 1/25th of the current distance between the Sun and Proxima Centauri. As we’re learning, wait long enough and the stars come to us.

Note that 10,000 AU; we’ll tighten it up further in a minute. But notice that it is actually inside the distance between the closest star, Proxima Centauri, and the Centauri A/B binary.

Image: Gleise 710 (center), destined to pass through the inner Oort Cloud in our distant future. Credit: SIMBAD / DSS

An encounter like this is interesting for a number of reasons. Interactions with the Oort Cloud should be significant, although well spread over time. Here I go back to a 1999 study by Joan García-Sánchez and colleagues that made the case that spread over human lifetimes, the effects of such a close passage would not be pronounced. Here’s a snippet from that paper:

For the future passage of Gl 710, the star with the closest approach in our sample, we predict that about 2.4 × 106 new comets will be thrown into Earth-crossing orbits, arriving over a period of about 2 × 106 yr. Many of these comets will return repeatedly to the planetary system, though about one-half will be ejected on the first passage. These comets represent an approximately 50% increase in the flux of long-period comets crossing Earth’s orbit.

As far as I know, the García-Sánchez paper was the first to identify Gliese 710’s flyby possibilities. The work was quickly confirmed in several independent studies before the first Gaia datasets were released, and the parameters of the encounter were then tightened using Gaia’s results, the most recent paper using Gaia’s third data release. Back to Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, who tackle the subject in a new paper appearing in Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society.

The researchers have subjected the Gliese 710 flyby to N-body simulations using a suite of software tools that model perturbations from the star and factor in the four massive planets in our own system as well as the barycenter of the Pluto/Charon system. They assume a mass of 0.6 Solar masses for Gliese 710, consistent with previous estimates. In addition to the Gaia data, the authors include the latest ephemerides information for Solar System objects as provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Horizons System.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: Future perihelion passage of Gliese?710 as estimated from Gaia?DR3 input data and the N-body simulations discussed in the text. The distribution of times of perihelion passage is shown in the top-left panel and perihelion distances in the top-right one. The blue vertical lines mark the median values, the red ones show the 5th and 95th percentiles. The bottom panels show the times of perihelion passage (bottom-left) and the distance of closest approach (bottom–right) as a function of the observed values of the radial velocity of Gliese?710 and its distance (randomly generated using the mean values and standard deviations from Gaia?DR3), both as color coded scatter plots of the distribution in the associated top panel. Histograms have been produced using the Matplotlib library (Hunter 2007) with sets of bins computed using Numpy (Harris et al. 2020) by applying the Freedman and Diaconis rule; instead of considering frequency-based histograms, we used counts to form a probability density so the area under the histogram will sum to one. The colormap scatter plot has also been produced using Matplotlib. Credit: Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos.

The de la Fuente Marcos paper now finds that the close approach of Gliese 710 will take it to within 10635 AU plus or minus 500 AU, putting it inside the inner Oort Cloud in about 1.3 million years – both the distance of the approach and the time of perihelion passage are tightened from earlier estimates. And as we’ve seen, Scholz’s Star passed through part of the Oort Cloud at perhaps 52,000 AU some 70,000 years ago. We thus get a glimpse of the Solar System influenced by passing stars on a time frame that begins to take shape and clearly defines a factor in the evolution of the Solar System.

What Gaia Can Tell Us

We can now back out further again to a 2018 paper from Coryn Bailer-Jones (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg), which examines not just two stars with direct implications for our Solar System, but Gaia data (using the Gaia DR2 dataset) on 7.2 million stars to look for further evidence for close stellar encounters. Here we begin to see the broader picture. Bailer-Jones and team find 26 stars that have or will approach within 1 parsec, 7 that will close to 0.5 parsecs, and 3 that will pass within 0.25 parsecs of the Sun. Interestingly, the closest encounter is with our friend Gliese 710.

How often can these encounters be expected to occur? The authors estimate about 20 encounters per million years within a range of one parsec. Greg Matloff has used these data to infer roughly 2.5 encounters within 0.5 parsecs per million years. Perhaps 400,000 to 500,000 years should separate close stellar encounters as found in the Gaia DR2 data. We should keep in mind here what Bailer-Jones and team say about the current state of this research, especially given subsequent results from Gaia: “There are no doubt many more close – and probably closer – encounters to be discovered in future Gaia data releases.” But at least we’re getting a feel for the time spans involved.

So given the distribution of stars in our neighborhood of the galaxy, our Sun should have a close encounter every half million years or so. Such encounters between stars dramatically reduce the distance for any would be travelers. In the case of Scholz’s Star, for instance, the distances involved cut the current distance to the nearest star by a factor of 5, while Gliese 710 is even more provocative, for as I mentioned, it will close to a distance not all that far off Proxima Centauri’s own distance from Centauri A/B.

A good time for interstellar migration? We’ve considered the possibilities in the past, but as new data accumulate, we have to keep asking how big a factor stellar passages like these may play in helping a technological civilization spread throughout the galaxy.

The earlier de la Fuente Marcos paper is “Where the Solar system meets the solar neighbourhood: patterns in the distribution of radiants of observed hyperbolic minor bodies,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters Vol. 476, Issue 1 (May 2018) L1-L5 (abstract). The later de la Fuente Marcos paper is “An Update on the Future Flyby of Gliese 710 to the Solar System Using Gaia DR3: Flyby Parameters Reproduced, Uncertainties Reduced,” Research Notes of the AAS Vol. 6, No. 6 (June, 2022) 136 (full text). The García-Sánchez et al. paper is “Stellar Encounters with the Oort Cloud Based on Hipparcos Data,” Astronomical Journal 117 (February, 1999), 1042-1055 (full text). The Bailer-Jones paper is “New stellar encounters discovered in the second Gaia data release,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 616, A37 (13 August 2018). Abstract.