PRESS RELEASE, January 1999
TO BOLDLY GO: NASA AND NSF GET SERIOUS ABOUT THE NEAREST STARS
Dr. Todd J. Henry
Dr. Dana E. Backman
What if Star Trek's captains didn't know where ``to boldly go?'' They would first have to determine how the Sun fits into the cosmic neighborhood by mapping out the nearest stars, and then investigate whether or not those stars have planets circling them. As the millenium approaches, NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are cooperating to do just that. By carefully studying a sample of these stars nearest to the Sun, scientists hope to learn about our stellar neighbors and any planetary systems they might support.
In 1998, NASA initiated the Nearby Stars (NStars) Project to develop a comprehensive understanding of all stars within 65 light years of Earth. Scientists are gathering and organizing fundamental information about each star within that range, including its distance, color, mass and age. Any suspected planets, dusty belts of asteroids, or clouds of comets around the stars will be noted and further investigated.
The information is already being organized into an ``NStars Database'' that will be accessible via the World Wide Web in January 2000. The database is headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, as part of NASA's Astrobiology Institute.
``Normal mature stars like our Sun and its nearest neighbors have often been neglected in astrophysical research because they aren't spectacularly exploding, in the process of forming, or going through big changes,'' says Project Scientist Dana Backman, professor of physics and astronomy at Franklin & Marshall College. ``However, these nearby `run-of-the-mill' stars are the likeliest hosts for systems containing planets like Earth.''
Deputy Project Scientist Todd Henry of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics will lead the research arm of the project. Less than two years ago, Henry led a team of astronomers under the umbrella of RECONS, the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, in discovering the 20th nearest star system --- an unassuming red dwarf star less than 12 light years away from Earth. Although Henry and his colleagues determined that this star, known as GJ 1061, was only three times farther away from Earth than the nearest known star, it had lurked undetected throughout the modern age --- a dramatic example of how little is known about the Sun's neighbors.
``Right now, the sample of nearby stars looks like a baseball field with the Sun up at bat, a lot of players in the infield, and fewer in the outfield. We believe that nearby space really has a fairly uniform density of stars, so there should be more players in the outfield,'' explains Henry. ``One of the goals of NStars is to find more outfielders.''
With NStars, NASA is laying the foundation for three of its large future space missions. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF, scheduled for launch in December 2001), the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM, scheduled for launch in June 2005), and the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF, planned for launch sometime after 2010) will all search for direct and indirect evidence of planets around nearby stars --- one of NASA's major scientific goals. In a cooperative arrangement, NASA and the NSF plan mutually to support broad-based research on nearby stars, and provide a map that can be used for future exploration.
This work has been supported by NASA via the Nearby Stars Project at NASA-Ames.