Like agitated bees circling a hive, we live in a dynamic sea of low-mass stars. More than a few buzz our own star on timescales of thousands to millions of years. But how many of these stellar interlopers perturb a fraction of the estimated few trillion comets that make up the Oort Cloud? That is, the grand reservoir of comets which circles our own solar system at a distance of nearly a light year. That’s the crux of this new paper which, among other things, posits that these passing stars cause a significant number of the Oort Cloud’s kilometer-sized cometary bodies to be injected into Earth-crossing orbits.
“This study is limited to stars for which we have accurate distances and velocities; which, in turn, limits us to stars currently within a few tens of [light years] from the Sun,” Bailer-Jones told Forbes. He calculates that some 40 stars ‘have come’ or ‘will come’ within an estimated 6.4 light years of our Sun over a time-frame spanning 20 million years in Earth’s past to 20 million years in our future.
Using Newton’s laws and standard numerical computations, Bailer-Jones traced each star’s trajectory backwards and forwards in time through “a sequence of a large number of very short line segments.” He says he also did the same for the Sun, since it, too, is moving around our galactic disk. Allowing for observational errors, he slightly changed each star’s initial coordinates some 10,000 times in order to build up what he terms a “probability distribution” of how close the stars actually came or will come to the Sun.
Such stellar interlopers can threaten life on Earth in three basic ways. Their gravity can cause the injection of Oort Cloud comets into our inner solar system. Passing massive hot stars could destroy Earth’s atmosphere via powerful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. And a very small fraction of passing stars might even go supernova over the estimated 30,000 year time-frame that they spend crossing through the Oort Cloud. Bailer-Jones says supernova remnants could induce long-term global cooling through the follow-on production of Nitrous Oxide (NO2) in our atmosphere.
Is there any evidence for this in Earth’s climate history?
“We see radioactive isotopes on Earth which point to nearby supernovae over the past few million years,” said Bailer-Jones. “These isotopes would either have been deposited directly by supernova debris, or were produced by high-energy particles coming from the supernova.”
As for incoming comets?
The largest known such perturbation may have been caused by gamma Microscopii, a solar type star some two and half times as large as the Sun, which less than four million years ago came within a light year.
Is there a causal link with Earth’s geological impact record?
“There are impact craters of similar age, but this does not indicate a causal connection,” said Bailer-Jones, who concludes it would be very difficult to make a direct link between an uptick in earth impacts and a individual passing star.
In fact, obtaining these answers remains very much a work in progress. Bailer-Jones hopes that forthcoming data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will allow astronomers to statistically investigate the link between such stellar close encounters and the Earth impact record.
But such encounters do happen over all timescales. Bailer-Jones notes that Van Maanen’s star, the closest known solitary white dwarf — a burned out stellar remnant — lies some 12 light years away in Pisces. It encountered our own Sun only 15,000 years ago.
However, as Bailer-Jones notes, if the astrometry detailing HIP 85605’s current position and velocity on the sky turn out to be incorrect, then Gliese 710 would be the Oort Cloud’s next stellar perturber.
Bailer-Jones says his own study gives a 90 percent probability that Gliese 710, a small sunlike star some 64 light years away in the constellation of Serpens, will make its closest approach of a little more than a light year some 1.30 to 1.5 million years from now.
By some estimates, Gliese 710’s passing will cause as many as 2.4 million comets to move into Earth-crossing orbits. As noted in my book “Distant Wanderers,” these comets will only gradually arrive in our vicinity over a period of some two million years. Some will be swept up by Jupiter’s gravity; others will repeatedly circle the Sun. A few will be flung out of the solar system altogether.
source: forbes.com by Bruce Dorminey