Lost Star of Myth and Time: Nemesis – Our Sun’s Missing Death Star Companion
The great issue facing the binary theory today is, well, the absence of an obvious candidate for the part. In the visible realm, we do not appear to have any stars near enough that fit the bill, according to our current understanding of physics (Newton’s Laws place physical restrictions on distance calculations). Although it’s a long shot, the existence of a visible companion to our Sun could still be possible under circumstances we will investigate later.
We have seen that the idea of a binary, while controversial, is not a new one. References to it in ancient writings and belief systems are there, though largely ignored by researchers and historians. With the majority of stars in the universe (all 1 % of it) being attached to binary or multiple star systems, the obvious question is, why wouldn’t our own Sun have a partner star as well? Statistically, it’s not at all likely that our Sun would be a loner. To many astronomers, though, the binary idea is an annoyance that just won’t die. They may ignore or disagree with the theory, but at the same time can’t disprove it.
A Red Dwarf star beside the Sun. (Public Domain)
Comet Impacts and Mass Extinctions
The history of the modern binary search begins in the early 1980s with Nemesis. At the time, paleological data seemed to indicate a trend of cyclical extinction patterns in the Earth’s strata, roughly showing a mass extinction about once every 26 million years. As scientists searched for answers, two separate teams, one at the University of Louisiana, and the other at UC Berkeley, presented an intriguing theory – and the idea of “Nemesis” arose. The Nemesis theory proposed that the mass extinctions were caused by comet impacts and that they occurred on a regular basis because there was some large mass object, dubbed the Nemesis Star, in a binary orbit with our Sun. In that hypothesis, every 26 million years or so Nemesis would get close enough to the Sun to stir up comets in the Oort Cloud, a vast debris field thought to contain trillions of comets, stretching a thousand times farther than Pluto. This disturbance would send a large number of comets towards the inner solar system, significantly increasing the chances of an impact with Earth.
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The Nemesis theory proposed that the mass extinctions were caused by comet impacts and that they occurred on a regular basis. (Gabriel Trujillo Escobedo/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
It was a very sexy theory that received large amounts of media attention and forced the scientific community to address the issue. Some found merit in the theory, while others picked at its flaws. One of the issues dogging the hypothesis was that the two teams of scientists could not agree on what the object was – even though they agreed on the term of periodicity for the mass extinctions (26 million years). Professor Richard Muller at Berkeley believed it was likely a dim Red Dwarf that had yet to be detected. Professors Dan Whitmire and John Matese, physicists with the University of Louisiana, leaned toward the possibility that it was a Brown Dwarf – basically a large mass object that is not quite big enough to sustain fusion and become a full-fledged star. While some contested the paleological evidence, they could not disprove the theory on this issue alone. In turn, many astronomers looked to IRAS, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, and the results of its All Sky Survey to either confirm or disprove the Nemesis theory.
Artist’s impression of a dusty disc encircling a Brown Dwarf — a star-like object, but one too small to shine brightly like a star. (ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/M. Kornmesser (ESO)/CC BY 4.0) The Nemesis star may be a Brown Dwarf.
IRAS and What it Didn’t Find
The IRAS mission was a boon to the scientific world. In its ten months of service, the discoveries it made had a major impact in almost every area of astronomy. IRAS scanned over 96% of the sky at four different infrared bands, and in the process increased the number of catalogued astronomical sources of infrared radiation by nearly 70%. IRAS was designed to show us things in the sky that were too dim to see with visible light, and it did so with great success. It catalogued roughly 500,000 new infrared sources. It discovered six new comets within our solar system, gave the first concrete evidence of proto-stars forming in clouds of dust and gas, and revealed for the first time the core of our galaxy. Data from IRAS was used to determine that the galaxy is disc-shaped, with thick bands of stars spiraling out from the center. Its discoveries also included several thousand (relatively nearby) stars that had not been observed before. None were found, however, that would fit the parameters set forth by the Nemesis theorists. A Red Dwarf near our system should have been easily detected, it was argued, unless it was lying in the direction of the galactic center. The argument against a Brown Dwarf was a bit stickier, since its low luminosity would have dipped off of IRAS’s detection ability a mere 3000 AU from the Sun (the Oort Cloud is thought to be roughly 30,000 to 50,000 AU distant). Many, though, still dismissed this probability.
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Artist's conception of the Milky Way Galaxy. (Public Domain)
While IRAS has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the universe, it was not perfect. Far more sensitive instruments have been developed over the past 20 years and are beginning to be applied to the task. With our knowledge of the universe limited to having observed just one percent of it, the possibility that something could exist out there is well within the theory’s framework.
Obviously, there is quite a difference, for completely different reasons, between the 26 million-year cycle thought to cause periodic extinctions (the Nemesis theory) and the 24,000-year cycle that could be driving precession and indirectly causing the rise and fall of the ages. Regardless of the differences, the Nemesis theory shows quite clearly that there are other credible scientists today with similar ideas. More importantly, it demonstrates how little we actually do know about the local area of space around us.
Top Image: Superflares From Young Red Dwarf Stars Imperil Planets. The Nemesis star may be a dim Red Dwarf star. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC BY 2.0
This article is an excerpt from the book ‘Lost Star of Myth and Time’ by Walter Cruttenden and has been republished with permission.