Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 34

INTERFOTO / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
STELLAR HISTORY by Ken Croswell
The Story of
Wolf 359
A little red sun in Leo was once the least luminous star known.
A
nyone who dreams of exploring the nearest solar
systems for signs of life has probably perused the list
of stars closest to the Sun. This roster boasts such
familiar luminaries as Alpha (α) Centauri, Sirius, and Procyon,
stars so brilliant they naturally attract the attention of
astronomers and stargazers alike.
But that same list also features a host
of red dwarfs - cool, dim suns invisible
to the naked eye. How did astronomers
discover that these unassuming stars
reside nearby? The answer is different for
each entry. This story is about one star
that's both especially close and especially
obscure. Named Wolf 359, it's less than
twice as far as Alpha Centauri yet shines
almost as feebly as Pluto.
German astronomer Max Wolf spotted
the dim star in 1918, then numbered
it 359 in a star catalog he published the
following year. Astronomers in the U.S.
later determined how close the faint sun
was and realized it was a record-breaker,
emitting less light than any other star
then known.
doctor, had the means to build his son a private observatory
in their backyard. In 1884, the 21-year-old Wolf discovered
a comet, now cataloged as 14P/Wolf. He later found two
additional comets, and in 1909 he was the first observer to
catch the return of Halley's Comet.
Wolf earned his doctorate in 1888
STELLAR NAME German astronomer
Max Wolf discovered the faint red dwarf
Wolf 359. Despite its faintness, the star's
large proper motion was a sign it might be
one of our nearest stellar neighbors.
The Life of Max Wolf
Max Wolf spent nearly his entire life in Heidelberg, a city in
southwestern Germany. He was born there in 1863 and died
there in 1932. (He is not to be confused with Charles Wolf,
who helped discover Wolf-Rayet stars.)
Wolf became interested in astronomy during his youth
and was fortunate that his father, Franz Wolf, a wealthy
34 MAY 2024 * SKY & TELESCOPE
at the University of Heidelberg, where
he studied asteroids, and devoted his
career to exploiting the nascent marriage
between astronomy and photography.
Wolf recognized that because an asteroid
moves against the stellar background, an
asteroid on time-exposure photographic
plates would appear as a short streak,
standing out from the stars. In this way he
discovered an asteroid on December 22,
1891, just three years after receiving his
doctorate. He named the small body Brucia
for Catherine Wolfe Bruce, a wealthy
American who supported astronomy and
donated $10,000 for a new telescope that
he later used. Wolf went on to find hundreds
of additional asteroids.
In 1906 he discovered the first Trojan.
Unlike most other asteroids, which lie
between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, Wolf's find is about
as far from the Sun as Jupiter is but revolves 60° ahead of the
giant planet. He named the odd asteroid Achilles.
Beyond the solar system Wolf had earlier photographed
NGC 7000, a nebula in Cygnus that the great English astronomer
William Herschel discovered in the 18th century. From
his photographs Wolf noticed that the nebula looked just like

Sky & Telescope - May 2024

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - May 2024

Contents
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover1
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - Cover2
Sky & Telescope - May 2024 - 1
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