Newly-discovered star system is the closest discovered in a century

Scott Sutherland

In one episode of The Big Bang Theory (specifically S04E05 — The Desperation Emanation), Dr. Sheldon Cooper recites the lyrics of a song as he heads downstairs from his apartment, rhyming off the names of the stars that are nearest to our own. However, based on a new discovery by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the lyrics of that song will need to be changed.

Astronomers working with WISE recently found WISE J104915.57-531906 (or WISE J1049-5319 for short), a pair of brown dwarfs — stellar objects that skirt the boundary between the definitions of 'planet' and 'star' ... too big to be considered planets, but still too small to sustain nuclear fusion in their core — that are quite close to us, at a distance of 6.5 light years.

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"One major goal when proposing WISE was to find the closest stars to the sun," said Edward Wright, the principal investigator for WISE at UCLA. "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."

WISE J1049-5319 is also the closest star system found in the past 100 years.

The Alpha Centauri star system has been shining brightly in the skies of the southern hemisphere throughout the breadth of human history, so it has no actual discovery date. However, was originally found to be our closest star in 1839, and astronomers figured out that it was a binary system roughly 30 years later. Alpha Centauri A and B are 4.37 light years away from us. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf that astronomers first discovered in 1915 and confirmed in 1917. It earned its name when astronomers found that it orbited the two stars in the Alpha Centauri system, and it actually came closer to us in that orbit. Thus it took over the spot as 'closest star', at a distance of 4.24 light years away, and bumped Alpha Centauri into the #2 position. Barnard's Star is another red dwarf that astronomers discovered in 1916, at a distance of nearly 6 light years away, so it occupies the #3 spot.

The next closest star to us was (before this latest discovery), Wolf 359, yet another red dwarf star, that is about 7.8 light years away.

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"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," said Prof. Kevin Luhman, according to Daily Galaxy. Prof. Luhman is an astronomer and astrophysicist at Penn State University, who studies low-mass stars, brown dwarfs and the planets that form around them. "It will be an excellent hunting ground for planets because the system is very close to Earth, which makes it a lot easier to see any planets orbiting either of the brown dwarfs."

If WISE J1049-5319 is just now getting our TV signals from 2006, any alien life that might be there (it would probably be living in an orbiting spacecraft, to my reckoning) could be enjoying Battlestar Galactica (before it went a little off). Also, we'd have a few years yet to edit in a correction into Dr. Cooper's song, although the system's name would be pretty tough to fit in, I think.

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