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Sun Has Newly Discovered Neighbors, The Third-Closest Star System

Mar 11, 2013 06:32 PM EDT

An astronomer from Pennsylvania State University has discovered the closest star system to the sun since 1916.The stars are "brown dwarfs," stars too small in mass to become hot enough to ignite hydrogen fusion.

The discovery, made by Kevin Luhman, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The newly discovered stars are now the third-closest star system to the sun, falling right behind the second-closest star system, Barnard's star (which is 6 light years away from the sun), and the closest star system, composed of Alpha Centauri (4.4 light years away from the sun) and Proxima Centauri (4.2 light-years away from the sun).

"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," Luhman said. "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." Since it is the third-closest star system, in the distant future it might be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions outside our solar system, Luhman said.

The new star system, dubbed WISE 1049-5319 is only slightly farther away than the second-closest star, Barnard's star, discovered 6.0 light-years from the sun in 1916. The closest star system consists of Alpha Centauri, found in 1839 at 4.4 light-years and the fainter Proxima Centauri, discovered in 1917 at 4.2 light-years.

Luhman has also stated that since this is the third-closest star system, and because it's so close to Earth, it will be an "excellent hunting ground for planets". He believes that these Brown Dwarfs may be one of the "first destinations for manned expeditions outside of our solar system."

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