Meet the new star neighbours

Astronomers have discovered 20 previously unknown stars lying right on our cosmic doorstep. The new neighbours are all close to the sun but went unnoticed before because they are fainter than normal stars.

red dwarfsThey are all a type known as a red dwarf which is believed to account for at least 69 per cent of the stars in the Milky Way.

The astronomers say they will make excellent targets to study to check if they have new planets, possibly supporting life.

All the new stars lie within 33 light-years of Earth – a highly local region of our 100,000 light-year wide galaxy. Two of them become the twenty-third and twenty-fourth closest stars known.

The 20 new neighbours were discovered by a group using small telescopes on a mountaintop in Chile. Details of the find will be published in next month’s Astronomical Journal.

The astronomers, from the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, have been searching the skies from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Andes since 1999.

Once the new stars were found, their distances were checked using trigonometry by observing them six months apart from opposite sides of our orbit around the Sun.

Project Director Todd Henry of Georgia State University, Atlanta, said yesterday: “Our goal is to help complete the census of our local neighbourhood and provide some statistical insights about the demographics of stars in our galaxy – their masses, their evolutionary states, and the frequency of multiple star systems.

“Due to their proximity, these systems are also excellent targets for exoplanet searches, and ultimately, for astrobiological studies of whether any planets that are found could support life.”

He added: “Red dwarfs are among the faintest but most populous objects in the Milky Way. Although you can’t see a single one with the naked eye, there are swarms of them throughout the galaxy.”

Red dwarfs now make up 239 of the 348 known objects within 33 light-years. When you add in other stars found since 2000, it means the local neighbourhood has got 16 per cent bigger in just six years.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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