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New Star System Found 6.5 Light Years Away

Mar 12, 2013 04:35 PM EDT

Right under the astronomers’ nose!

A new star system has been discovered by astronomers at a surprisingly close distance from us.

WISE J104915.57-531906 – as the new star system was called – is spinning at a breathtaking 6.5 light years away, which makes it the third closest to our solar system and the nearest to be discovered since 1917.

The star system spins around a pair of brown dwarfs – cool, dim objects that actually resemble planets more than stars. Even though they do give off heat and have chemical properties just like ordinary stars like our Sun, these strange objects are often referred to as ‘failed stars’ since they don’t quite have enough mass that would allow them to be crushed by gravity so that thermonuclear reactions can ignite the hydrogen in their cores.

The discovery of the star system was credited to Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Penn State University while studying a map of the entire sky stitched together from 13 months of observations obtained by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite.

The young star-gazer got hooked by the behavior of one particular star which appeared to have a rapid motion visible through time-lapse images.

After extrapolating the star’s movement back in time, Luhman found that it was indeed captured but not identified by other surveys as far back as 1978.

“It was a lot of detective work,” Luhman said in a press statement. “There are billions of infrared points of light across the sky, and the mystery is which one- if any of them- could be a star that is very close to our solar system.”
While astronomical distances are vast, this star system is really quite nearby when it comes to our stellar surroundings , as Luhman points out in a press statement.

“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.

Comparatively the second-closest star, Barnard’s star, is 6.0 light years from the Sun while our nearest neighboring star system consists of Alpha Centauri at 4.4 light years, and its fainter companion 4.2 light year distant Proxima Centauri.

The proximity of this stellar pair, he says, may even make them favorable for us to send star-ships there one day.

“…in the distant future it might be one of the first destinations for manned expeditions outside our solar system.”

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