Standing on a
strikingly more primitive version of our world, looking up at the night sky as
a bright red-light burst to life. What goes through our ancestors’ minds? Do
they think it’s the work of primordial gods?
Is it a sign of
The crimson light show is brief, but even with its passing into the depths of space, its effects may be felt even today.
The last decade or so has been filled with unfounded conspiracy theories of rogue planets and stars smashing through our cosmic backyard like celestial wrecking balls, but what if such a star DID at one point come close to our parent star? That’s exactly what scientists at the University of Madrid and the University of Cambridge think may have happened 70,000 years ago.
A 2015 study suggests that a nearby red dwarf may have come as close as the Oort cloud and disturbed many asteroids and comets in the process (among other objects), making our solar neighborhood a bit more chaotic, to say the least.
Last year, two astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid, brothers Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos, together with researcher Sverre J. Aarseth of the University of Cambridge (in the UK), have analyzed close to 340 objects in our solar backyard, and what they’ve found is
“Using numerical simulations we have calculated the radiants or positions in the sky from which all these hyperbolic objects seem to come,” explains Carlos de la Fuente Marcos.
“In principle,” Marcos continues, “one would expect those positions to be evenly distributed in the sky, particularly if these objects come from the Oort cloud; however, what we find is very different: a statistically significant accumulation of radiants. The pronounced over-density appears projected in the direction of the constellation of Gemini, which fits the close encounter with Scholz´s star.”
However, the flyby of Scholz’s star didn’t disturb all of the hyperbolic objects in our system, just those that it was closest to at that time.
Scholz’s Star is a binary star system consisting of a red dwarf and a smaller brown dwarf companion.
What this means, is that the gravitational interaction and perturbation of Scholz’s Star coming close to our star system’s Oort Cloud could have altered the orbits of these lesser objects, creating the sharp distortions that Marcos and Aarseth are seeing—creating what amounts to a sharp “v-shape” in their orbital paths around the sun.
Scholz’ Star, the red dwarf in question is now 20 light years away from our sun, but 70,000 years ago, some scientists believe that its orbit would put it very close to our system, coming within 1 light year of the sun. That may not seem like much, but it may explain why some objects in our solar system appear to have a sharp V in their orbits, rather than the typical
elliptical orbital paths we tend to see. In fact, at least 36 of those observed had that telltale V shape in their orbit, which is not insignificant.
However, not everyone is convinced. Wesley Fraser from Queen’s University-Belfast believes that the dataset is observationally biased. Stating that the precision of the data on these bodies limits the claims that can be made about their trajectories, since many of them were glimpsed very briefly.
Dvorsky believes that Scholz’ star is probably not the only star to pass through the Oort Cloud, and that over the course of millions of years other stars have also made close passes. But those flybys, he says, don’t affect us much on Earth. Most of the stars don’t impact Oort Cloud objects at all in fact. “I’m not losing sleep over comets perturbed by Scholz’ Star,” he
says. “There are many, many more immediate concerns on Earth, and most are fixable.”
This doesn’t seem unreasonable, seeing as how our planet is over 4 billion years old, that’s plenty of time (in a cosmic sense) for there to have been at least several close approaches from neighboring stars. We tend to think of the Solar System as a closed system, but mounting evidence of interstellar visitors is slowly challenging that. Just recently, we detected
the first interstellar asteroid—dubbed Oumuamua—which passed through our star system at a staggering 57,000 miles per hour. It makes one wonder how these flybys may have
shaped the early Solar System.
If Scholz’ Star did come so close to our star, what do you think our relatives would have seen? Would they have noticed at all?
Unfortunately, the lightshow would have been brief. The star’s brightest magnitude is only 10, making it 50 times too dim to see with the naked eye. But, since it’s a red dwarf, which have a tendency to flare up quite bright, its magnitude could have increased significantly if such a flareup occurred during its supposed transit. If this was the case, then it’s
possible that our ancestors could have been treated to quite the show.
What do you think of this study? Do you think our ancestors witnessed Scholz’s star? Comment below with your theories.