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Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 11 - Getting wise about Nemesis

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Getting WISE About Nemesis

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Cosmic Evolution
Posted: 03/11/10
Author: Leslie Mullen

Summary: Is our Sun part of a binary star system? An unseen companion star, nicknamed “Nemesis,” may be sending comets towards Earth. If Nemesis exists, NASA’s new WISE telescope should be able to spot it.

Size comparison of our Sun, a low mass star, a brown dwarf, Jupiter, and Earth. Stars with less mass than the Sun are smaller and cooler, and hence much fainter in visible light. Brown dwarfs have less than eight percent of the mass of the Sun, which is not enough to sustain the fusion reaction that keeps the Sun hot. These cool orbs are nearly impossible to see in visible light, but stand out when viewed in infrared. Their diameters are about the same as Jupiter's, but they can have up to 80 times more mass and are thought to have planetary systems of their own.
Image credit: NASA
A dark object may be lurking near our solar system, occasionally kicking comets in our direction.

Nicknamed “Nemesis” or “The Death Star,” this undetected object could be a red or brown dwarf star, or an even darker presence several times the mass of Jupiter.

Why do scientists think something could be hidden beyond the edge of our solar system? Originally, Nemesis was suggested as a way to explain a cycle of mass extinctions on Earth.

The paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski claim that, over the last 250 million years, life on Earth has faced extinction in a 26-million-year cycle. Astronomers proposed comet impacts as a possible cause for these catastrophes.

Our solar system is surrounded by a vast collection of icy bodies called the Oort Cloud. If our Sun were part of a binary system in which two gravitationally-bound stars orbit a common center of mass, this interaction could disturb the Oort Cloud on a periodic basis, sending comets whizzing towards us.

An asteroid impact is famously responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but large comet impacts may be equally deadly. A comet may have been the cause of the Tunguska event in Russia in 1908. That explosion had about a thousand times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and it flattened an estimated 80 million trees over an 830 square mile area.

While there’s little doubt about the destructive power of cosmic impacts, there is no evidence that comets have periodically caused mass extinctions on our planet. The theory of periodic extinctions itself is still debated, with many insisting that more proof is needed. Even if the scientific consensus is that extinction events don’t occur in a predictable cycle, there are now other reasons to suspect a dark companion to the Sun.

The Footprint of Nemesis

The smaller object in these two photos is a brown dwarf that orbits the star Gliese 229. Located in the constellation Lepus and about 19 light years from Earth, the brown dwarf Gliese 229B is about 20 to 50 times the mass of Jupiter. Image credit: NASA

A recently-discovered dwarf planet, named Sedna, has an extra-long and usual elliptical orbit around the Sun. Sedna is one of the most distant objects yet observed, with an orbit ranging between 76 and 975 AU (where 1 AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun). Sedna’s orbit is estimated to last between 10.5 to 12 thousand years. Sedna’s discoverer, Mike Brown of Caltech, noted in a Discover magazine article that Sedna’s location doesn’t make sense.

"Sedna shouldn't be there,” said Brown. “There's no way to put Sedna where it is. It never comes close enough to be affected by the Sun, but it never goes far enough away from the Sun to be affected by other stars.”

Perhaps a massive unseen object is responsible for Sedna’s mystifying orbit, its gravitational influence keeping Sedna fixed in that far-distant portion of space.

“My surveys have always looked for objects closer and thus moving faster,” Brown told
Astrobiology Magazine. “I would have easily overlooked something so distant and slow moving as Nemesis.”

John Matese, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, suspects Nemesis exists for another reason. The comets in the inner solar system seem to mostly come from the same region of the Oort Cloud, and Matese thinks the gravitational influence of a solar companion is disrupting that part of the cloud, scattering comets in its wake. His calculations suggest Nemesis is between 3 to 5 times the mass of Jupiter, rather than the 13 Jupiter masses or greater that some scientists think is a necessary quality of a brown dwarf. Even at this smaller mass, however, many astronomers would still classify it as a low mass star rather than a planet, since the circumstances of birth for stars and planets differ.

The “New Object” labeled in this image is Sedna, a dwarf planet with a 12,000-year orbit around the Sun. It’s a mystery why Sedna has such an elongated orbit.
The Oort Cloud is thought to extend about 1 light year from the Sun. Matese estimates Nemesis is 25,000 AU away (or about one-third of a light year). The next-closest known star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, located 4.2 light years away.

Richard Muller of the University of California Berkeley first suggested the Nemesis theory, and even wrote a
popular science book on the topic. He thinks Nemesis is a red dwarf star 1.5 light years away. Many scientists counter that such a wide orbit is inherently unstable and could not have lasted long – certainly not long enough to have caused the extinctions seen in Earth’s fossil record. But Muller says this instability has resulted in an orbit that has changed greatly over billions of years, and in the next billion years Nemesis will be thrown free of the solar system.

Binary star systems are common in the galaxy. It is estimated that one-third of the stars in the Milky Way are either binary or part of a multiple-star system.

Red dwarfs are also common – in fact, astronomers say they are the most common type of star in the galaxy. Brown dwarfs are also thought to be common, but there are only a few hundred known at this time because they are so difficult to see. Red and brown dwarfs are smaller and cooler than our Sun, and do not shine brightly. If red dwarfs can be compared to the red embers of a dying fire, then brown dwarfs would be the smoldering ash. Because they are so dim, it is plausible that the Sun could have a secret companion even though we’ve searched the sky for many years with a variety of instruments.

NASA’s newest telescope, the
Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), may be able to answer the question about Nemesis once and for all.

Finding Dwarfs in the Dark

Illustration of the “Oort Cloud,” a vast region of comets thought to extend a light year beyond our Sun.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Donald K. Yeoman
WISE looks at our universe in the infrared part of the spectrum. Like the Spitzer space telescope, WISE is hunting for heat. The difference is that WISE has a much wider field of view, and so is able to scan a greater portion of the sky for distant objects.

WISE began scanning the sky on January 14, and NASA recently released the mission’s
first images. The mission will map the entire sky until October, when the spacecraft’s coolant runs out.

Part of the WISE mission is to search for brown dwarfs, and NASA expects it could find one thousand of the dim stellar objects within 25 light years of our solar system.

Davy Kirkpatrick at NASA’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech found nothing when he searched for Nemesis using data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (
2MASS). Now Kirkpatrick is part of the WISE science team, ready to search again for any signs of a companion to our Sun.

Kirkpatrick doesn’t think Nemesis will be the red dwarf star with an enormous orbit described by Muller. In his view, Matese’s description of Nemesis as a low mass object closer to home is more plausible.

“I think the possibility that the Sun could harbor a companion of another sort is not a crazy idea,” said Kirkpatrick. “There might be a distant object in a more stable, more circular orbit that has gone unnoticed so far.”

Ned Wright, professor of astronomy and physics at UCLA and the principal investigator for the WISE mission, said that WISE will easily see an object with a mass a few times that of Jupiter and located 25,000 AU away, as suggested by Matese.

Astronomers think there could be as many brown dwarfs as stars like our Sun, but brown dwarfs are often too cool to find using visible light. Using infrared light, the WISE mission could find many brown dwarfs within 25 light years of the Sun. These two pictures show simulated data before and after the WISE mission (stars are not real). The simulated picture on the left shows known stars (white and yellow) and brown dwarfs (red) in our solar neighborhood. The picture on the right shows additional brown dwarfs WISE is expected to find.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This is because Jupiter is self-luminous like a brown dwarf,” said Wright. “But for planets less massive than Jupiter in the far outer solar system, WISE will be less sensitive.”

Comet “Siding Spring” appears to streak across the sky like a superhero in this new infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. WISE will be looking for comets and asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Neither Kirkpatrick nor Wright think Nemesis is disrupting the Oort cloud and sending comets towards Earth, however. Because they envision a more benign orbit, they prefer the name "Tyche" (the good sister).

Regardless of what they expect to find, the WISE search won’t focus on one particular region of the sky.

“The great thing about WISE, as was also true of 2MASS, is that it's an all-sky survey,” said Kirkpatrick. “There will be some regions such as the Galactic Plane where the observations are less sensitive or fields more crowded, but we'll search those areas too. So we're not preferentially targeting certain directions.”

We may not have an answer to the Nemesis question until mid-2013. WISE needs to scan the sky twice in order to generate the time-lapsed images astronomers use to detect objects in the outer solar system. The change in location of an object between the time of the first scan and the second tells astronomers about the object’s location and orbit. Then comes the long task of analyzing the data.

“I don't suspect we'll have completed the search for candidate objects until mid-2012, and then we may need up to a year of time to complete telescopic follow-up of those objects,” said Kirkpatrick.

Even if Nemesis is not found, the WISE telescope will help shed light on the darkest corners of the solar system. The telescope can be used to search for dwarf planets like Pluto that orbit the Sun off the solar system’s ecliptic plane. The objects that make up the Oort Cloud are too small and far away for WISE to see, but it will be able to track potentially dangerous comets and asteroids closer to home.

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How to Digitally Record/Video a UFO sighting:

Como registar digitalmente ou gravar um vídeo de um avistamento de um UFO:

Stabilize the camera on a tripod. If there is no tripod, then set it on top of a stable, flat surface. If that is not possible lean against a wall to stabilize your body and prevent the camera from filming in a shaky, unsteady manner.

Estabilize a camera com um tripé. Se não tiver um tripé, então coloque-a em cima de uma superfície estável. Se não for possível, então encoste-se a uma parede para estabilizar o corpo e evitar que a camera registe de maneira tremida e instável.

Provide visual reference points for comparison. This includes the horizon, treetops, lampposts, houses, and geographical landmarks (i.e., Horsetooth Reservoir, Mt. Adams, etc.) Provide this in the video whenever is appropriate and doesn’t detract from what your focus is, the UFO.

Forneça pontos visuais de referência para comparação. Isso inclui o horizonte, cimo das árvores, postes de iluminação, pontos de referência geográficos (como o Reservatório de Horsetooth, Mone Adams, etc) Forneça esses pontos no vídeo sempre que for apropriado e não se distraia do que é o seu foco, o UFO/a Nave.

Narrate your videotape. Provide details of the date, time, location, and direction (N,S,E,W) you are looking in. Provide your observations on the weather, including approximate temperature, windspeed, any visible cloud cover or noticeable weather anomalies or events. Narrate on the shape, size, color, movements, approximate altitude of the UFO, etc and what it appears to be doing. Also include any unusual physical, psychological or emotional sensations you might have. Narrate any visual reference points on camera so they correlate with what the viewer will see, and thereby will be better able to understand.

Faça a narração do vídeo. Forneça pormenores sobre a data, hora, local e direcção (Norte, Sul, Este, Oeste) que está a observar. Faça observações sobre as condições atmosféricas, incluindo a temperatura aproximada, velocidade do vento, quantidade de nuvens, anomalias ou acontecimentos meteorológicos evidentes. Descreva a forma, o tamanho, a cor, os movimentos, a altitude aproximada onde se encontra o UFO/nave, etc e o que aparenta estar a fazer. Inclua também quaisquer aspectos pouco habituais de sensações físicas, psicológicas ou emocionais que possa ter. Faça a narração de todos os pontos de referência visual que o espectador irá ver e que, deste modo, será capaz de compreender melhor.

Be persistent and consistent. Return to the scene to videotape and record at this same location. If you have been successful once, the UFO sightings may be occurring in this region regularly, perhaps for specific reasons unknown, and you may be successful again. You may also wish to return to the same location at a different time of day (daylight hours) for better orientation and reference. Film just a minute or two under “normal” circumstances for comparison. Write down what you remember immediately after. As soon as you are done recording the experience/event, immediately write down your impressions, memories, thoughts, emotions, etc. so it is on the record in writing. If there were other witnesses, have them independently record their own impressions, thoughts, etc. Include in this exercise any drawings, sketches, or diagrams. Make sure you date and sign your documentation.

Seja persistente e não contraditório. Volte ao local da cena e registe o mesmo local. Se foi bem sucedido uma vez, pode ser que nessa região ocorram avistamentos de UFOs/naves com regularidade, talvez por razões específicas desconhecidas, e talvez possa ser novamente bem sucedido. Pode também desejar voltar ao mesmo lugar a horas diferentes do dia (durante as horas de luz)para ter uma orientação e referência melhor. Filme apenas um ,inuto ou dois em circunstâncias “normais” para ter um termo de comparação. Escreva tudo o que viu imediatamente após o acontecimento. Logo após ter feito o registo da experiência/acontecimento, escreva imediatamente as impressões, memórias, pensamentos, emoções, etc para que fiquem registadas por escrito. Se houver outras testemunhas, peça-lhes para registar independentemente as suas próprias impressões, pensamentos, etc. Inclua quaisquer desenhos, esbolos, diagramas. Certifique-se que data e assina o seu documento/testemunho.

Always be prepared. Have a digital camera or better yet a video camera with you, charged and ready to go, at all times. Make sure you know how to use your camera (and your cell phone video/photo camera) quickly and properly. These events can occur suddenly, unexpectedly, and often quite randomly, so you will need to be prepared.

Esteja sempre preparado, Tenha sempre uma camera digital, melhor ainda, uma camera vídeo consigo, carregada e pronta a usar sempre que necessário. Certifique-se que sabe como lidar com a sua camera (ou com o seu celular/camera fotográfica) rápida e adequadamente. Esses acontecimentos podem acontecer súbita e inesperadamente e, por vezes, acidentalmente, por isso, necessita estar preparado.

Look up. Be prepared. Report. Share.

Olhe para cima, Esteja preparado, Relate, Partilhe.



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