Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Laboratory
The Sun is good. Without our hot, gas ball of a friend, we’d all be dead. More accurately, we would have never been born! So it’s a good thing that our Sun has escaped some very close encounters with other stars throughout its lifetime. But the danger isn’t over yet.
New research from the European Space Agency (ESA) studied the motions of 300,000 stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, tracing the paths of those stars relative to the Sun, and anticipating their movements up to five million years into the future. ESA astronomers used the Gaia catalogue — which contains data on roughly a billion stars — to make their determinations.
From their calculations, researchers predict 97 stars will miss our Sun by about 93.2 trillion miles (about 150 trillion km) at some point in the next 5 million years. Sixteen stars will graze our Sun at a distance of 37.2 trillion miles (about 60 trillion km). While that seems like a lot — because it is — the ESA reports this is actually “considered reasonably near.” At least, it’s near enough to potentially perturb the Oort cloud, a vast belt of icy cometary objects encircling our Sun at mind-boggling distances.
One star in particular — Gliese 710 — is expected to whiz by our star by about 16,000 Earth-Sun distances in about 1.3 million years. Of all the stars the researchers studied, this is by far the closest one that will pass our star. While scientists have actually known about Gliese 710’s trajectory for a while, this new info suggests it could pass our Sun much closer than previously thought. Its tango with our Sun could send a lot of comets into the inner Solar System, potentially on “a collision course with Earth or other planets.”
So even if you’re having a bad day here on 1 AU, remember things could always be worse: you could be witnessing an alien sun colliding with our own, ushering in the literal apocalypse.