Nemesis (star)

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Artist's conception of Nemesis as a red dwarf seen from a nearby debris field with the Sun visible in the center.

Nemesis is a hypothetical red dwarf star or brown dwarf, orbiting the Sun at a distance of about 50,000 to 100,000 AU, somewhat beyond the Oort cloud. This star was originally postulated to exist as part of a hypothesis to explain a perceived cycle of mass extinctions in the geological record.


[edit] Claimed periodicity of mass extinctions

In 1984 paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski published a paper claiming that they had identified a statistical periodicity in extinction rates over the last 250 million years using various forms of time series analysis.[1] They focused on the extinction intensity of fossil families of marine vertebrates, invertebrates, and protozoans, identifying 12 extinction events over the time period in question. The average time interval between extinction events was determined as 26 million years. At the time, two of the identified extinction events (Cretaceous-Tertiary and Late Eocene) could be shown to coincide with large impact events. Although Raup and Sepkoski could not identify the cause of their supposed periodicity, they suggested that there might be a non-terrestrial connection. The challenge to propose a mechanism was quickly addressed by several teams of astronomers.

[edit] Development of the Nemesis hypotheses

Two teams of astronomers, Whitmire and Jackson, and Davis, Hut and Muller, independently published similar hypotheses to explain Raup and Sepkoski's extinction periodicity in the same issue of the journal Nature.[2][3] This hypothesis proposes that the sun may have an as yet undetected companion star in a highly elliptical orbit that periodically disturbs comets in the Oort cloud, causing a large increase in the number of comets visiting the inner solar system with a consequential increase in impact events on Earth. This became known as the Nemesis (or, more colorfully, Death Star) hypothesis.

If it does exist, the exact nature of Nemesis is uncertain. Richard A. Muller suggests that the most likely object is a red dwarf with magnitude between 7 and 12,[4] while Daniel P. Whitmire and Albert A. Jackson argue for a brown dwarf. If a red dwarf, it would undoubtedly already exist in star catalogs, but its true nature would only be detectable by measuring its parallax; due to orbiting the Sun it would have a very low proper motion and would escape detection by proper motion surveys that have found stars like the 9th magnitude Barnard's star.

The last major extinction event was about 5 million years ago, so Muller posits that Nemesis is likely 1-1.5 light years away at present, and even has ideas of what area of the sky it might be in (supported by Yarris, 1987), near Hydra, based on a hypothetical orbit derived from original apogees of a number of atypical long-period comets that describe an orbital arc meeting the specifications of Muller's hypothesis.

[edit] Looking for Nemesis

If Nemesis exists, it may be detected by the planned Pan-STARRS or LSST astronomical surveys, or similar future projects. If Nemesis is a brown dwarf, as proposed by Dr. Dan Whitmire and Albert A. Jackson IV, then the upcoming WISE mission (scheduled for November 2009) should easily find it.

[edit] Other hypotheses

Matese and Whitman have suggested that the supposed extinction periodicity might be caused by the solar system oscillating across the galactic plane of the Milky Way. These oscillations may lead to gravitational disturbances in the Oort cloud with the same proposed consequences as the orbit of "Nemesis". However, the period of oscillation is not well-constrained observationally, and may differ from the needed 26 million years by as much as 40%.

[edit] Literary references

Certain parallels may be drawn between Nemesis and the red star from Anne McCaffrey's Pern books series. Both disturb the Oort cloud and both bring destruction down upon their respective planets.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle also describe such a mechanism in the novel Lucifer's Hammer. Niven commented in his short story collection N-Space that had they named the conceptual dark companion in Lucifer's Hammer, the name "Nemesis" would have been used.

Isaac Asimov's novel Nemesis deals with the repercussions of a future colony being established around a star named Nemesis as a way of escaping an oppressive Earth. While the star in the book is on a course that will take it through the solar system, it is not in orbit around the sun as is the theorized Nemesis.

Piers Anthony makes several 'matter-of-fact' comments on the existence of the Nemesis star, stating it to be a companion star of the Sun, in his Bio of a Space Tyrant series.

Matthew Reilly's novel The Six Sacred Stones deals with a dark companion to the sun that will end all life on the planet unless it is stopped by the accumluation of several artifacts from around the world.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Raup, D.M.; Sepkoski, J.J. (1984-02-01). "Periodicity of Extinctions in the Geologic Past". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 81 (3): 801–805. doi:10.1073/pnas.81.3.801. PMID 6583680. Retrieved on 2007-04-30. 
  2. ^ Whitmire, D.P.; Jackson, A.A. (1984). "Are periodic mass extinctions driven by a distant solar companion?". Nature 308 (5961): 713–715. doi:10.1038/308713a0. 
  3. ^ Davis, M.; Hut, P., Muller, R.A. (1984). "Extinction of species by periodic comet showers". Nature 308 (5961): 715–717. doi:10.1038/308715a0. 
  4. ^ Retrieved on 05-19-07

[edit] External links

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