22 July 2010, JellyBean @ 7:35 am

The data that once suggested the Sun is orbited by a distant dark companion now raises even more questions.

Over the last 500 million years or so, life on Earth has been threatened on many occasions; the fossil record is littered with extinction events. What’s curious about these events is that they seem to occur with alarming regularity.

The periodicity is a matter of some controversy among paleobiologists but there is a growing consensus that something of enormous destructive power happens every 26 or 27 million years. The question is what?

In this blog, we’ve looked at various ideas such as the Sun’s passage through the various spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy (it turns out that this can’t explain the extinctions because the motion doesn’t have had the right periodicity).

But another idea first put forward in the 1980s is that the Sun has a distant dark companion called Nemesis that sweeps through the Oort cloud every 27 million years or so, sending a deadly shower of comets our way. It’s this icy shower of death that causes the extinctions, or so the thinking goes.

Today, Adrian Melott at the University of Kansas and Richard Bambach at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC re-examine the paleo-record to see if they can get a more accurate estimate of the orbit of Nemesis.

Read more: the physics arXiv blog at Technology Review

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