Zeta 1 Reticuli is separated from Zeta 2 Reticuli by at least 350 billion miles -- about 100 times the Sun-Pluto distance. They may be even farther apart, but the available observations suggest they are moving through space together and are therefore physically associated. They probably require at least 100,000 years to orbit around their common center of gravity.
Both Zeta 1 Reticuli and Zeta 2 Reticuli are prime candidates for the search for life beyond Earth. According to our current theories of planetary formation, they both should have a retinue of planets something like our solar system. As yet there is no way of determining if any of the probable planets of either star is similar to Earth.
To help visualize the Zeta Reticuli system, let’s take the Sun’s nine planets and put them in identical orbits around Zeta 2 Reticuli. From a celestial mechanics standpoint there is no reason why this situation could not exist. Would anything be different? Because of Zeta 2 Reticuli’s slightly smaller mass as compared with the Sun, the planets would orbit a little more slowly. Our years might have 390 days, for example. Zeta 2 Reticuli would make a fine sun -- slightly dimmer than “Old Sol”, but certainly capable of sustaining life. The big difference would not be our new sun but the superstar of the night sky. Shining like a polished gem, Zeta 1 Reticuli would be the dazzling highlight of the night sky -- unlike anything we experience here on Earth. At magnitude -9 it would appear as a starlike point 100 times brighter than Venus. It would be like compressing all the light from the first quarter moon into a point source.
Zeta 1 Reticuli would have long ago been the focus of religions, mythology and astrology if it were in earthly skies. The fact that it would be easily visible in full daylight would give Zeta 1 Reticuli supreme importance to both early civilizations and modern man. Shortly after the invention of the telescope astronomers would be able to detect Jupiter and Saturn sized planets orbiting around Zeta 1. Jupiter would be magnitude +12, visible up to 4.5 minutes of arc from Zeta 1 Reticuli (almost as far as Ganymede swings from Jupiter). It would not make a difficult target for an eight inch telescope. Think of the incentive that discovery would have on interstellar space travel! For hundreds of years we would be aware of another solar system just a few “light-weeks” away. The evolution of interstellar spaceflight would be rapid, dynamic and inevitable.
By contrast, our nearest solar type neighbor is Tau Ceti at 12 light-years. Even today we only suspect it is accompanied by a family of planets, but we don’t know for sure.
From this comparison of our planetary system with those of Zeta Reticuli, it is clear that any emerging technologically advanced intelligent life would probably have great incentive to achieve star flight. The knowledge of a nearby system of planets of a solar type star would be compelling -- at least it would certainly seem to be.
What is so strange -- and this question prompted us to prepare this article -- is: Why, of all stars, does Zeta Reticuli seem to fit as the hub of a map that appeared inside a spacecraft that allegedly landed on Earth in 1961? Some of the circumstances surrounding the whole incident are certainly bizarre, but not everything can be written off as coincidence or hallucination. It may be optimistic, on one extreme, to hope that our neighbors are as near as 37 light-years away. For the moment we will be satisfied with considering it an exciting possibility.
COMMENTARY: EDITOR’S PREFACE
THE AGE OF NEARBY STARS
By Jeffrey L. Kretsch
But we have yet to travel to any other planet -- and certainly a flight to the surface of a planet of a nearby star is an event no one reading this will live to witness. So direct measurement of the ages of nearby stars -- as a by-product of extrasolar planetary exploration -- is a distant future enterprise. We are left with information obtained from our vantage point here near Earth. There is lots of it -- so let’s find out what it is and what it can tell us.
When we scan the myriad stars of the night sky, are we looking at suns that have just ignited their nuclear fires -- or have they been flooding the galaxy with light for billions of years? The ages of the stars are among the most elusive stellar characteristics. Now, new interpretation of data collected over the past half century is shedding some light on this question.
Computer models of stellar evolution reveal that stars have definite lifespans, thus, a certain type of star cannot be older than its maximum predicted lifespan. Solar type stars of spectral class F5 or higher (hotter) cannot be older than our Sun is today. These stars’ nuclear fires burn too rapidly to sustain them for a longer period, and they meet an early death.
All main sequence stars cooler than F5 can be as old or older than the Sun. Additionally, these stars are also much more likely to have planets than the hotter suns.
There are several exciting reasons why the age of a star should be tracked down. Suppose we have a star similar to the Sun (below class F5). If we determine how old the star is, we can assume its planets are the same age -- a fascinating piece of information that suggests a host of questions: Would older Earthlike planets harbor life more advanced than us? Is there anything about older or younger stars and planets that would make them fundamentally different from the Sun and Earth?
Of course we don’t know the answer to the first question, but it is provocative. The answer to the second question seems to be yes (according to the evidence that follows).
To best illustrate the methods of star age determination and their implications, let’s select a specific problem. “The Zeta Reticuli Incident” sparked more interest among our readers than any other single article in ASTRONOMY Magazine’s history. Essentially, that article drew attention to a star map allegedly seen inside an extraterrestrial spacecraft. The map was later deciphered by Marjorie Fish, now a research assistant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
In her analysis, Ms. Fish linked all 16 prominent stars in the original map (which we’ll call the Hill map since it was drawn by Betty Hill in 1966) to 15 real stars in the southern sky. The congruence was remarkable. The 15 stars -- for convenience we will call them the Fish-Hill pattern stars -- are listed on the accompanying table.
Since these stars have been a focus of attention due to Ms. Fish’s work and the article mentioned above, we will examine them specifically to see if enough information is available to pin down their ages and (possibly) other characteristics. This will be our case study star group.
Consider, for example, the velocities of these stars in space. It is now known that the composition and the age of a star shows a reasonably close correlation with that star’s galactic orbit. The understanding of this correlation demands a little knowledge of galactic structure.
Our galaxy, as far as we are concerned, consists essentially of two parts -- the halo, and the disk. Apparently when the galaxy first took shape about 10 billion years ago, it was a colossal sphere in which the first generation of stars emerged. These stars -- those that remain today, anyway -- define a spherical or halolike cloud around the disk shaped Milky Way galaxy. Early in the galaxy’s history, it is believed that the interstellar medium had a very low metal content because most of the heavy elements (astronomers call any element heavier than helium “heavy” or a “metal”) are created in the cores of massive stars which then get released into the interstellar medium by stellar winds, novae and supernovae explosions. Few such massive stars had “died” to release their newly made heavy elements.
Thus, the stars which formed early (called Population II stars) tend to have a spherical distribution about the center of the galaxy and are generally metal-poor.
A further gravitational collapse occurred as the galaxy flattened out into a disk, and a new burst of star formation took place. Since this occurred later and generations of stars had been born and died to enrich the interstellar medium with heavy elements, these disk stars have a metal-rich composition compared to the halo stars. Being in the disk, these Population I stars (the Sun, for example) tended to have motions around the galactic core in a limited plane -- something like the planets of the Solar System.
Population II stars -- with their halo distribution -- usually have more random orbits which cut through the Population I hoards in the galactic plane. A star’s space velocity perpendicular to the galactic plane is called its W velocity. Knowing the significance of the W velocity, one can apply this information to find out about the population classification and hence the ages and compositions of stars in the solar neighborhood -- the Fish-Hill stars in particular.
High W velocity suggests a Population II star, and we find that six of the 16 stars are so classified while the remaining majority are of Population I. A further subdivision can be made using the W velocity data. The results are shown in the table below.
Three stars (Gliese 59, 67 and 68) are known as Old Population I and are almost certainly younger than the Sun. They also probably have a higher metal content than the Sun, although specific data is not available. The Disk Population II stars are perhaps two to four billion years older than the Sun, while the Intermediate Population II are believed to be a billion or two years older still.
For main sequence stars like the Sun, as all these stars are, it is generally believed that after the star is formed and settled on the main sequence no mixing between the outer layers and the thermo-nuclear core occurs. Thus the composition of the outer layers of a star (from which we receive the star’s light), must have essentially the same composition as the interstellar medium out of which the star and its planets were formed.
Terrestrial planets are composed primarily of heavy elements. The problem is: If there is a shortage of heavy elements in the primeval nebula, would terrestrial planets be able to form? At present, theories of planetary formation are unable to state for certain what the composition of the cloud must be in order for terrestrial planets to materialize, although it is agreed to be unlikely that Population II stars should have terrestrial planets. But for objects somewhere between Population I and II -- especially Disk Population II -- no one really knows.
Although we can’t be certain of determining whether a star of intermediate metal deficiencies can have planets or not, we can make certain of the existence of metal deficiencies in those stars. The eccentricities and inclinations of the galactic orbits of the Fish-Hill stars provide the next step in the information sequence.
The table above also shows that the stars Gliese 136, 138, 139, 86 and 71 have the highest eccentricities and inclinations in their galactic orbits. This further supports the Population II nature of these four stars. According to B.E.J. Pagel of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, the correlation between eccentricity and the metal/hydrogen ratio is better than that between the W-velocity and the metal/hydrogen ratio. It is interesting to see how closely the values of eccentricity seem to correspond with Population type as derived from W velocity -- Old Population I objects having the lowest values. Since the two methods give similar results, we can lend added weight to our classification.
So far all the evidence for metal deficiencies has been suggestive; no direct evidence has been given. However, specific data can be obtained from spectroscopic analysis. The system for which the best set of data exists also happens to be one of the most important stars of the pattern, Zeta 1 Reticuli. In 1966, J.D. Danziger of Harvard University published results of work he had done on Zeta 1 Reticuli using wide-scan spectroscopy. He did indeed find metal deficiencies in the star: carbon, 0.2, compared to our Sun; magnesium, 0.4; calcium, 0.5; titanium, 0.4; chromium, 0.3; manganese, 0.4; iron, 0.4; cobalt, 0.4; nickel, 0.2, and so on.
In spite of the possible error range of about 25 percent, there is a consistent trend of metal deficiencies -- with Zeta 1 Reticuli having less than half the heavy elements per unit mass that the Sun does. Because Zeta 1 Reticuli has common proper motion and parallax with Zeta 2 Reticuli, it probably also has the same composition. Work done by M.E. Dixon of the University of Edinburgh showing the two stars to have virtually identical characteristics tends to support this.
The evidence that the Zeta Reticuli system is metal deficient is definite. From this knowledge of metal deficiency and the velocities and eccentricities, we can safely conclude that the Zeta Reticuli system is older than the Sun. The question of terrestrial planets being able to form remains open.
The other two stars which have high velocities and eccentricities are 82 Eridani (Gliese 139) and Gliese 86. Because the velocities of these stars are higher than those of Zeta Reticuli, larger metal deficiencies might be expected. For the case of Gliese 86, no additional information is presently available. However, some theoretical work has been done on 82 Eridani concerning metal abundances by J. Hearnshaw of France’s Meudon Observatory.
Although 82 Eridani is a high velocity star, its orbit lies largely within the galactic plane, and also within the solar orbit. Its orbit is characteristic of the Old Disk Population, and an ultraviolet excess indicates only a mild metal deficiency compared to the Sun. Hearnshaw’s conclusions indicate that the metal deficiency does not appear to be any worse than that of the Zeta Reticuli pair. Because Gliese 86 has a velocity, eccentricity and inclination similar to 82 Eridani, it seems likely that its chemical composition may also not have severe metal deficiencies, but be similar to those of 82 Eridani.
Tau Ceti appears to be very much like the Sun except for slight deficiencies of most metals in rarely seen abnormal abundances of magnesium, titanium, silicon and calcium. Stars in this class are known as alpha-rich stars, but such properties do not appear to make Tau Ceti unlikely to have planets similar to the Sun’s.
Tau 1 Eridani, an F6V star, has a life expectancy of 4.5 billion years -- so it cannot be older than the Sun. The low eccentricities and low moderate velocity support an age and composition near that of the Sun.
Gliese 67 is a young star of at least solar metal abundances, considering its low velocity and eccentricity.
Having covered most of the stars either directly or simply by classifying them among the different Population classes, it is apparent that there is a wide age range among different stars of this group as well as a range of compositions. It is curious that the stars connected by the alleged “trade routes” (solid lines) are the older and occasionally metal deficient ones -- while the stars connected by dotted lines seem to be younger Population I objects.
A final point concerning the metal deficiencies is rather disturbing. Even though terrestrial planets might form about either star in the Zeta Reticuli system, there is a specific deficiency in carbon to well within the error range. This is disturbing because carbon is the building block of organic molecule chains. There is no way of knowing whether life on Earth would have emerged and evolved as far as it has if carbon were not as common here.
Another problem: If planets formed but lacked large quantities of useful industrial elements, could a technical civilization arise? If the essential elements were scarce or locked up in chemical compounds, then an advanced technology would be required to extract them. But the very shortage of these elements in the first place might prevent this technology from being realized. The dolphins are an example of an intelligent but nontechnical race. They do not have the means to develop technology. Perhaps some land creatures on another planet are in a comparable position by not having the essential elements for technological development (this theme is explored in detail in “What Chariots of Which Gods?,” August 1974).
This whole speculation certainly is not strong enough to rule out the Fish interpretation of the Hill map given our present state of knowledge. Actually in some respects, the metal deficiencies support the Fish hypothesis because they support an advanced age for several of the stars -- suggesting that if cultures exist in these star systems, they might well be advanced over our own.
The fact that none of the stars in the pattern is seriously metal deficient (especially the vital branch high velocity stars 82 Eridani and Gliese 86) is an encouragement to the Fish interpretation -- if terrestrial planets can form in the first place and give rise to technical civilizations. Once again we are confronted with evidence which seems to raise as many questions as it answers. But the search for answers to such questions certainly can only advance knowledge of our cosmic environment.
Jeffrey L. Kretsch is an astronomy student at Northwestern University working under the advisement of Dr. J. Allen Hynek. For more than a year Kretsch has been actively pursuing follow-up studies to the astronomical aspects of the Fish-Hill map. More of his studies and comments appear in In Focus.