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article imageNew star system discovered in Earth's backyard

By Robert Myles     Mar 16, 2013 in Science
A professor at Penn State’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds has discovered a binary star system comprising a pair of brown dwarf stars, just 6.5 light years from the Sun. In astronomical terms, the new system is in Earth's backyard.
The discovery was made by Kevin Luhman, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University and a researcher in Penn State's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds and is the closest star system to Earth discovered since 1916. Leading up to the discovery of this nearby binary star system, Luhman had studied images of the sky taken by NASA funded Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite over a 13-month period ending in 2011.
WISE J104915.57-531906 is at the center of the larger image  taken by the WISE satellite. It appeare...
WISE J104915.57-531906 is at the center of the larger image, taken by the WISE satellite. It appeared to be a single object, but a sharper image from Gemini Observatory revealed it was a binary star system.
NASA/JPL/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF
Both stars in the system, named "WISE J104915.57-531906" in recognition of the contribution made by NASA’s WISE satellite, are brown dwarfs.
Brown dwarfs have been likened to the glowing embers of a fire. Unlike our Sun, brown dwarfs don’t have the critical mass required to ignite hydrogen fusion. Astronomers sometimes regard them as a halfway-house between gas giant planets like Jupiter and brightly shining stars such as our Sun.
The graphic below shows just how close the newly discovered system is to Earth. In stellar terms, our next door neighbour is the Alpha Centauri system, the closest component of which to Earth is Proxima Centauri, discovered in 1917, at 4.2 light years. Slightly further away at 6 light years lies Barnard’s star, discovered in 1916.
The diagram shows the locations of star systems closest to our Sun along with dates of discovery.The...
The diagram shows the locations of star systems closest to our Sun along with dates of discovery.The binary system WISE J104915.57-531906 is the third nearest system to the Sun, and the closest one found in a century.
Credit: Janella Williams, Penn State University.
Commenting on his discovery on the Penn State University website, Professor Luhman put the distance to WISE J104915.57-531906 in perspective, saying, “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."
Speaking on the NASA website, Edward (Ned) Wright, principal investigator for the WISE satellite at UCLA, said, "One major goal when proposing WISE was to find the closest stars to the sun. WISE J1049-5319 is by far the closest star found to date using the WISE data, and the close-up views of this binary system we can get with big telescopes like Gemini and the future James Webb Space Telescope will tell us a lot about the low-mass stars known as brown dwarfs."
More about Astronomy, nearby stars, new stars, brown dwarfs, brown dwarf stars
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