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Published February 10, 2015 | Published
Journal Article Open

The Closest Known Flyby of a Star to the Solar System

Abstract

Passing stars can perturb the Oort Cloud, triggering comet showers and potentially extinction events on Earth. We combine velocity measurements for the recently discovered, nearby, low-mass binary system WISE J072003.20-084651.2 ("Scholz's star") to calculate its past trajectory. Integrating the Galactic orbits of this ~0.15 M_⊙ binary system and the Sun, we find that the binary passed within only 52^(+23)_(−14) kAU (0.25^(+0.11)_(−0.07) pc) of the Sun 70^(+15)_(−10) kya (1σ uncertainties), i.e., within the outer Oort Cloud. This is the closest known encounter of a star to our solar system with a well-constrained distance and velocity. Previous work suggests that flybys within 0.25 pc occur infrequently (~0.1 Myr^(−1)). We show that given the low mass and high velocity of the binary system, the encounter was dynamically weak. Using the best available astrometry, our simulations suggest that the probability that the star penetrated the outer Oort Cloud is ~98%, but the probability of penetrating the dynamically active inner Oort Cloud (<20 kAU) is ~10^(−4). While the flyby of this system likely caused negligible impact on the flux of long-period comets, the recent discovery of this binary highlights that dynamically important Oort Cloud perturbers may be lurking among nearby stars.

Additional Information

© 2015 American Astronomical Society. Received 2014 December 13; accepted 2015 January 18; published 2015 February 12. E.E.M. acknowledges support from NSF grant AST-1313029. A.Y.K. and P.V. acknowledge the support from the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa. We thank Dave Latham, Alice Quillen, Kevin Luhman, Cameron Bell, Dave Cameron, Peter Teuben, Segev Ben-Zvi, Adam Burgasser, Ralf-Dieter Scholz, Matt Multunas, and Richard Sarkis for discussions. We thank the referee for a very timely and useful report.

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