Newest discoveries: What’s hot & what’s not

WISE J104915.57-531906 is at the center of the larger image, which was taken by the NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). This is the closest star system discovered since 1916, and the third closest to our sun. It is 6.5 light-years away. (NASA)

WISE J104915.57-531906 is at the center of the larger image, which was taken by the NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). This is the closest star system discovered since 1916, and the third closest to our sun. It is 6.5 light-years away. (NASA)

The mass media latch onto a limited topic-range of astronomical discoveries and amplify these to the world. The public, generally clueless about the heavens, thus receive information that’s usually limited to a few predictable areas, while the juiciest stuff often passes beneath the radar.

At Slooh, the online observatory with which I’m associated (whose new free app just came out last Monday), we unashamedly exploit media willingness to report every near-Earth asteroid encounter – driven by a tacit fear of a celestial collision – and we at Slooh visually track such near-misses live, knowing that we’ll reliably get vast numbers of global visitors to the site.

Other recent news in the media:

a) more evidence that Mars once had water and was a pleasanter place in the distant past;

b) evidence that the universe is actually 13.8 and not 13.7 billion years old (of course, a moment’s thought lets anyone realize that this couldn’t be the age of the actual universe – only the observable, inflating section that we know about);

c) the latest “farthest galaxy”;

d) the latest “new planet” beyond our solar system. There are now over 18,000 known and 861 individually catalogued. Last week the news was finding water vapor and carbon monoxide in the most recent exosolar version of Jupiter.

These must be widely interesting issues, or else the media wouldn’t keep reporting on them.

What are topics that “insiders” find fascinating? Among them, the three truly astonishing findings of 1997-8, and another that surfaced more recently:

a) Most of the Cosmos is made of a mysterious entity we call dark energy.

b) A fifth state of matter has properties that resemble nothing else.

c) Quantum entanglement information spreads across the entire Cosmos at unlimited speed not confined to the velocity of light.

d) The universe is probably infinite, so that everything we observe is a negligible fraction of the whole (zero percent, actually), and thus no over-arching cosmological models or theories have any real validity at this point, other than being mere guesses.

Deep stuff. But I’m always on the lookout for newfound nuggets to share with you, and it’s fine if it’s simple and basic – as long as it doesn’t just keep repeating the standard media topics.

Anyway, one just popped up: It’s the discovery of the third-nearest star system to us. This is the first truly close star found since 1916.

The very closest star is the three-sun system Alpha Centauri. It’s composed of an identical twin to our own Sun, orbited once per human lifetime, 80 years, by a slightly dimmer orange-yellow star. At considerable distance but gravitationally linked lies a very dim red star that orbits that pair every million years or so. Its name is Proxima Centauri, and it’s the very closest single star to us. That entire triple system lies about 4.3 light-years away.

At six light-years sits a solitary dim star named Barnard’s Star. Now, this new discovery is a pair of brown dwarf stars, slightly farther from us than Barnard’s. They’re now the third-nearest star system.

Both members of this new binary system, “brown dwarfs,” are barely stars at all. They’re more like Jupiters. They are too low in mass ever to achieve nuclear fusion in their cores. They give off no light at all. But they can be detected by their heat, just as Jupiter’s hot core makes it radiate twice as much warmth as it receives from the Sun.

This new star system is named WISE J104915.57-531906 because it was discovered in an infrared map of the entire sky obtained by the WISE infrared space telescope. Not exactly a catchy name – but a catchy discovery.

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