Astronomers discover our third closest neighbor

Posted by Kate Taylor

Astronomers have found the closest solar system to our own to be discovered in nearly a century - the third-closest ever found, in fact.

The new binary system consists of two brown dwarfs, too small to ever become hot enough for hydrogen fusion to begin, and consequently very cool and dim.

But it's close enough, says says Kevin Luhman, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, that it would make a good target for a future manned mission.

"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," he says.

"It will be an excellent hunting ground for planets because it is very close to Earth, which makes it a lot easier to see any planets orbiting either of the brown dwarfs."

The catchily-named WISE J104915.57-531906 is only slightly farther away than the second-closest star, Barnard's star, which was discovered 6.0 light years from the sun in 1916.

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

"WISE 1049-5319 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."

To discover the new star system, Luhman studied the images of the sky captured by the WISE satellite during a 13-month period ending in 2011. During its mission, WISE observed each point in the sky 2 to 3 times.

"In these time-lapse images, I was able to tell that this system was moving very quickly across the sky - which was a big clue that it was probably very close to our solar system," says Luhman.