The Nemesis theory–that the sun has a companion star that is responsible for recurring episodes of death and destruction here on Earth–has been debated since it was proposed by University of California physicist Richard Muller. Most astronomers and astrophysicists dismiss the theory.
But Muller believes that the sun may indeed have a companion star, which he has named Nemesis, a red dwarf that may occassionally cause severe solar events every 26 million years or so, when its orbit brings it too close to the sun.
He says that the idea came to him in 1983, right after Luis Alvarez theorized that a giant impact wiped out the dinosaurs. Two other researchers at the time suggested another controversial idea, that mass extinctions occurred at regular intervals, every 26 million years or so.
Pondering this, Muller conceived of the idea of a companion to the sun as a possible cause and named it after the Greek goddess of retribution. As Muller sees it, Nemesis is a common red dwarf star that would be visible through binoculars or a small telescope, if only we knew which of some 3,000 stars to look at. These stars have all been cataloged, but their distances are unknown and any one of them could be the ?death star.?
Red dwarfs are the most common stars in the galaxy. They are small and relatively cool, dimmer than our sun. Companion stars are very common?over half of all stars are part of such a binary system, in which two stars are thought to have formed out of a single cloud of gas.
Binary stars move around a common point, and the smaller of the two does most of the orbiting. On its closest approach to Earth, Muller figures Nemesis would pass through an area of comets called the Oort Cloud, which surrounds our solar system. The gravity of Nemesis would scatter a storm of these comets and once dislodged, millions or billions of them would travel to the inner solar system over millions of years, pulled toward the sun by its gravity. A handful would run into the Earth along the way.
Muller is confident that Nemesis will be discovered within the next 10 years. ?Give me a million dollars and I?ll find it,? he says.
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