Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Possible Sister Star that Formed with Our Sun

Astronomers now know that stars, like people, tend to be sociable. Stars are often born and hang out in groups -- double stars, triple stars, star associations, and star clusters.  Yet our Sun is a single star, surrounded only by its family of planets and moons, but no sibling star to keep it company.  Was it always this way?

In recent years, it's become clearer that our Sun could well have formed in a loose group of thousands of stars, when it first "clumped" out of the gas and dust (raw material) of the Galaxy some 5 billion years ago.  If our mother cluster was indeed just loosely held together by the mutual gravity of the stars, in all that time, the stars could have drifted apart -- as many families do in the busy course of life. 

So we have been on the lookout for the Sun's now far-away sisters. This past week, a team of astronomers, headed by Ivan Ramirez of the University of Texas, announced that they might have found our first long-lost sibling. 

There are perhaps as many as 400 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.  How can we possibly find our sisters in that huge and anonymous crowd?  After all, there are no star birth certificates on file at county offices and no little tags that hang around a star's neck.  The search involved two factors: First they looked for stars that have the same chemical make-up as the Sun (they consist of the same proportion of elements) -- which you'd expect from stars born in the same"womb."  And then they searched for stars whose motion could be calculated backwards in time and would have placed them close to us 5 billion years ago. 

Sorting through 30 possible candidates identified by other groups of astronomers after painstaking work, Ramirez' group came up with exactly one star that fit all the criteria.  Called by its catalog number, HD 162826, it's 110 light years away now, in the constellation box called Hercules.  (See the map.)  It has 15 % more mass than the Sun, and so it is a little brighter and a little hotter than our star. (In astronomy jargon, it's a Type F star, while our Sun is Type G.)

It turns out that HD 162826 has been searched for planets for the last 15 years, and so far, no planets have turned up.  But the kind of search it has been subjected to can't find small (Earth-like) planets. So the we have a long way to go before we can decide it the star has a planetary system around it or not.

Future surveys, allowing us to analyze the make-up of fainter stars, could well turn up other family members out there.  For now, astronomers will keep a far closer eye on this one possible sister star and follow it as it goes about its life.  Who knows, one day, someone from there may just respond to the equivalent of a cosmic blog post.

1 comment:

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