Release No.: 99-04
EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE: 9:20 a.m. JANUARY 9, 1999
TO BOLDLY GO: NASA AND NSF GET SERIOUS ABOUT THE NEAREST STARS
What if Star Trek's captains didn't know where "to boldly go?" Theywould first have to determine how the Sun fits into the cosmicneighborhood by mapping out the nearest stars, and then investigatewhether or not those stars have planets circling them. As themillenium approaches, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF)are cooperating to do just that. By carefully studying a sample ofthose stars nearest to the Sun, scientists hope to learn more about ourstellar neighbors and any planetary systems they might support.
In 1998, NASA initiated the Nearby Stars (NStars) Project to develop acomprehensive understanding of all stars within 65 light years ofEarth. Scientists are gathering and organizing fundamentalinformation about each star within that range, including itsdistance, color, mass, and age. Any suspected planets, dusty belts ofasteroids, or clouds of comets around the stars will be noted andfurther investigated.
The information is already being organized into an "NStars Database"that will be accessible via the World Wide Web in January 2000. Thedatabase is headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Center in MoffettField, California, as part of NASA's Astrobiology Institute.
"Normal mature stars like our Sun and its nearest neighbors have oftenbeen neglected in astrophysical research because they aren'tspectacularly exploding, in the process of forming, or going throughbig changes," says Project Scientist Dana Backman, professor ofphysics and astronomy at Franklin & Marshall College. "However, thesenearby 'run-of-the-mill' stars are the likeliest hosts for systemscontaining planets like Earth."
Deputy Project Scientist Todd Henry of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centerfor Astrophysics will lead the research arm of the project. Less thantwo years ago, Henry led a team of astronomers under the umbrella ofRECONS, the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, in discovering the20th nearest star system -- an unassuming red dwarf star less than 12light years away from Earth. Although Henry and his colleaguesdetermined that this star, known as GJ 1061, was only three timesfarther away from Earth than the nearest known star, it had lurkedundetected throughout the modern age -- a dramatic example of howlittle is known about the Sun's neighbors.
"Right now, the sample of nearby stars looks like a baseball fieldwith the Sun up at bat, a lot of players in the infield, and fewer inthe outfield. We believe that nearby space really has a fairlyuniform density of stars, so there should be more players in theoutfield," explains Henry. "One of the goals of NStars is to findmore outfielders."
With NStars, NASA is laying the foundation for three of its largefuture space missions. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF,scheduled for launch in December 2001), the Space InterferometryMission (SIM, scheduled for launch in June 2005), and the TerrestrialPlanet Finder (TPF, planned for launch sometime after 2010) will allsearch for direct and indirect evidence of planets around nearby stars-- one of NASA's major scientific goals. In a cooperativearrangement, NASA and the NSF plan mutually to support broad-basedresearch on nearby stars, and provide a map that can be used forfuture exploration.
Click here for illustration and caption.
For additional information, contact:
Todd Henry, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Dana Backman, Franklin & Marshall College / NASA Ames Research Center