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Behind the Scenes: The “Making Of” the First Brown Dwarf Surface Map

By now, you will probably have heard that astronomers have produced the first global weather map for a brown dwarf. (If you haven’t, you can find the story here.) May be you’ve even built the cube model or the origami balloon model of the surface of the brown dwarf Luhman 16B the researchers provided (here).

Two views of the first brown dwarf map

Two views of the brown dwarf map for Luhman 16B. Image credit: ESO/I. Crossfield

Since one of my hats is that of public information officer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, where most of the map-making took place, I was involved in writing a press release about the result. But one aspect that I found particularly interesting didn’t get much coverage there. It’s that this particular bit of research is a good example of how fast-paced astronomy can be these days, and, more generally, it shows how astronomical research works. So here’s a behind-the-scenes look – a making-of, if you will – for the first brown dwarf surface map (see image on the right).

As in other sciences, if you want to be a successful astronomer, you need to do something new, and go beyond what’s been done before. That, after all, is what publishable new results are all about. Sometimes, such progress is driven by larger telescopes and more sensitive instruments becoming available. Sometimes, it’s about effort and patience, such as surveying a large number of objects and drawing conclusion from the data you’ve won.

Ingenuity plays a significant role. Think of the telescopes, instruments and analytical methods developed by astronomers as the tools in a constantly growing tool box. One way of obtaining new results is to combine these tools in new ways, or to apply them to new objects.

That’s why our opening scene is nothing special in astronomy: It shows Ian Crossfield, a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and a number of colleagues (including institute director Thomas Henning) in early March 2013, discussing the possibility of applying one particular method of mapping stellar surfaces to a class of objects that had never been mapped in this way before.

The method is called Doppler imaging. It makes use of the fact that light from a rotating star is slightly shifted in frequency as the star rotates. As different parts of the stellar surfaces go by, whisked around by the star’s rotation, the frequency shifts vary slightly different depending on where the light-emitting region is located on the star. From these systematic variations, an approximate map of the stellar surface can be reconstructed, showing darker and brighter areas. Stars are much too distant for even the largest current telescopes to discern surface details, but in this way, a surface map can be reconstructed indirectly.

The method itself isn’t new. The basic concept was invented in the late 1950s, and the 1980s saw several applications to bright, slowly rotating stars, with astronomers using Doppler imaging to map those stars’ spots (dark patches on a stellar surface; the stellar analogue to Sun spots).

Crossfield and his colleagues were wondering: Could this method be applied to a brown dwarf – an intermediary between planet and star, more massive than a planet, but with insufficient mass for nuclear fusion to ignite in the object’s core, turning it into a star? Sadly, some quick calculations, taking into account what current telescopes and instruments can and cannot do as well as the properties of known brown dwarfs, showed that it wouldn’t work.

The available targets were too faint, and Doppler imaging needs lots of light: for one because you need to split the available light into the myriad colors of a spectrum, and also because you need to take many different rather short measurements – after all, you need to monitor how the subtle frequency shifts caused by the Doppler effect change over time.

So far, so ordinary. Most discussions of how to make observations of a completely new type probably come to the conclusion that it cannot be done – or cannot be done yet. But in this case, another driver of astronomical progress made an appearance: The discovery of new objects.

Artist's impression of the WISE satellite

Kevin Luhman discovered the brown dwarf pair in data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE; artist’s impression). Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On March 11, Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Penn State University, announced a momentous discovery: Using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), he had identified a system of two brown dwarfs orbiting each other. Remarkably, this system was at a distance of a mere 6.5 light-years from Earth. Only the Alpha Centauri star system and Barnard’s star are closer to Earth than that. In fact, Barnard’s star was the last time an object was discovered to be that close to our Solar system – and that discovery was made in 1916.

Modern astronomers are not known for coming up with snappy names, and the new object, which was designated WISE J104915.57-531906.1, was no exception. To be fair, this is not meant to be a real name; it’s a combination of the discovery instrument WISE with the system’s coordinates in the sky. Later, the alternative designation “Luhman 16AB” for the system was proposed, as this was the 16th binary system discovered by Kevin Luhman, with A and B denoting the binary system’s two components.

These days, the Internet gives the astronomical community immediate access to new discoveries as soon as they are announced. Many, probably most astronomers begin their working day by browsing recent submissions to astro-ph, the astrophysical section of the arXiv, an international repository of scientific papers. With a few exceptions – some journals insist on exclusive publication rights for at least a while –, this is where, in most cases, astronomers will get their first glimpse of their colleagues’ latest research papers.

Luhman posted his paper “Discovery of a Binary Brown Dwarf at 2 Parsecs from the Sun” on astro-ph on March 11. For Crossfield and his colleagues at MPIA, this was a game-changer. Suddenly, here was a brown dwarf for which Doppler imaging could conceivably work, and yield the first ever surface map of a brown dwarf.

However, it would still take the light-gathering power of one of the largest telescopes in the world to make this happen, and observation time on such telescopes is in high demand. Crossfield and his colleagues decided they needed to apply one more test before they would apply. Any object suitable for Doppler imaging will flicker ever so slightly, growing slightly brighter and darker in turn as brighter or darker surface areas rotate into view. Did Luhman 16A or 16B flicker – in astronomer-speak: did one of them, or perhaps both, show high variability?

Astronomy comes with its own time scales. Communication via the Internet is fast. But if you have a new idea, then ordinarily, you can’t just wait for night to fall and point your telescope accordingly. You need to get an observation proposal accepted, and this process takes time – typically between half a year and a year between your proposal and the actual observations. Also, applying is anything but a formality. Large facilities, like the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescopes, or space telescopes like the Hubble, typically receive applications for more than 5 times the amount of observing time that is actually available.

But there’s a short-cut – a way for particularly promising or time-critical observing projects to be completed much faster. It’s known as “Director’s Discretionary Time”, as the observatory director – or a deputy – are entitled to distribute this chunk of observing time at their discretion.

Image of the MPG/ESO 2.2 m telescope at ESO's La Silla observatory

To monitor Luhman 16A and B’s brightness flucutations, Beth Biller used the MPG/ESO 2.2. meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. Image credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org)

On April 2, Beth Biller, another MPIA post-doc (she is now at the University of Edinburgh), applied for Director’s Discretionary Time on the MPG/ESO 2.2 m telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile. The proposal was approved the same day.

Biller’s proposal was to study Luhman 16A and 16B with an instrument called GROND. The instrument had been developed to study the afterglows of powerful, distant explosions known as gamma ray bursts. With ordinary astronomical objects, astronomers can take their time. These objects will not change much over the few hours an astronomer makes observations, first using one filter to capture one range of wavelengths (think “light of one color”), then another filter for another wavelength range. (Astronomical images usually capture one range of wavelengths – one color – at a time. If you look at a color image, it’s usually the result of a series of observations, one color filter at a time.)

Gamma ray bursts and other transient phenomena are different. Their properties can change on a time scale of minutes, leaving no time for consecutive observations. That is why GROND allows for simultaneous observations of seven different colors.

Biller had proposed to use GROND’s unique capability for recording brightness variations for Luhman 16A and 16B in seven different colors simultaneously – a kind of measurement that had never been done before at this scale. The most simultaneous information researchers had gotten from a brown dwarf had been at two different wavelengths (work by Esther Buenzli, then at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and colleagues). Biller was going for seven. As slightly different wavelength regimes contain information about gas at slightly different colors, such measurements promised insight into the layer structure of these brown dwarfs – with different temperatures corresponding to different atmospheric layers at different heights.

For Crossfield and his colleagues – Biller among them –, such a measurement of brightness variations should also show whether or not one of the brown dwarfs was a good candidate for Doppler imaging.

Image of the TRAPPIST telescope in its dome.

The robotic telescope TRAPPIST, also at ESO’s La Silla observatory, was the first to find brightness fluctuations of the brown dwarf Luhman 16B.

As it turned out, they didn’t even have to wait that long. A group of astronomers around Michaël Gillon had pointed the small robotic telescope TRAPPIST, designed for detecting exoplanets by the brightness variations they cause when passing between their host star and an observer on Earth, to Luhman 16AB. The same day that Biller had applied for observing time, and her application been approved, the TRAPPIST group published a paper “Fast-evolving weather for the coolest of our two new substellar neighbours”, charting brightness variations for Luhman 16B.

This news caught Crossfield thousands of miles from home. Some astronomical observations do not require astronomers to leave their cozy offices – the proposal is sent to staff astronomers at one of the large telescopes, who make the observations once the conditions are right and send the data back via Internet. But other types of observations do require astronomers to travel to whatever telescope is being used – to Chile, say, to or to Hawaii.

When the brightness variations for Luhman 16B were announced, Crossfield was observing in Hawaii. He and his colleagues realized right away that, given the new results, Luhman 16B had moved from being a possible candidate for the Doppler imaging technique to being a promising one. On the flight from Hawaii back to Frankfurt, Crossfield quickly wrote an urgent observing proposal for Director’s Discretionary Time on CRIRES, a spectrograph installed on one of the 8 meter Very Large Telescopes (VLT) at ESO’s Paranal observatory in Chile, submitting his application on April 5. Five days later, the proposal was accepted.

View of the 8 meter telescope Antu

Antu, the first of the four 8 meter Unit Telescopes (UTs) of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) shortly after installation in 2000. Image: ESO

On May 5, the giant 8 meter mirror of Antu, one of the four Unit Telescopes of the Very Large Telescope, turned towards the Southern constellation Vela (the “Sail of the Ship”). The light it collected was funneled into CRIRES, a high-resolution infrared spectrograph that is cooled down to about -200 degrees Celsius (-330 Fahrenheit) for better sensitivity.

Three and two weeks earlier, respectively, Biller’s observations had yielded rich data about the variability of both the brown dwarfs in the intended seven different wavelength bands.

At this point, no more than two months had passed between the original idea and the observations. But paraphrasing Edison’s famous quip, observational astronomy is 1% observation and 99% evaluation, as the raw data are analyzed, corrected, compared with models and inferences made about the properties of the observed objects.

For Beth Biller’s multi-wavelength monitoring of brightness variations, this took about five months. In early September, Biller and 17 coauthors, Crossfield and numerous other MPIA colleagues among them, submitted their article to the Astrophysical Journal Letters (ApJL) after some revisions, it was accepted on October 17. From October 18 onward, the results were accessible online at astro-ph, and a month later they were published on the ApJL website.

In late September, Crossfield and his colleagues had finished their Doppler imaging analysis of the CRIRES data. Results of such an analysis are never 100% certain, but the astronomers had found the most probable structure of the surface of Luhman 16B: a pattern of brighter and darker spots; clouds made of iron and other minerals drifting on hydrogen gas.

As is usual in the field, the text they submitted to the journal Nature was sent out to a referee – a scientist, who remains anonymous,  and who gives recommendations to the journal’s editors whether or not a particular article should be published. Most of the time, even for an article the referee thinks should be published, he or she has some recommendations for improvement. After some revisions, Nature accepted the Crossfield et al. article in late December 2013.

With Nature, you are only allowed to publish the final, revised version on astro-ph or similar servers no less than 6 month after the publication in the journal. So while a number of colleagues will have heard about the brown dwarf map on January 9 at a session at the 223rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in Washington, D.C., for the wider astronomical community, the online publication, on January 29, 2014, will have been the first glimpse of this new result. And you can bet that, seeing the brown dwarf map, a number of them will have started thinking about what else one could do. Stay tuned for the next generation of results.

And there you have it: 10 months of astronomical research, from idea to publication, resulting in the first surface map of a brown dwarf (Crossfield et al.) and the first seven-wavelength-bands-study of brightness variations of two brown dwarfs (Biller et al.). Taken together, the studies provide fascinating image of complex weather patterns on an object somewhere between a planet and a star the beginning of a new era for brown dwarf study, and an important step towards another goal: detailed surface maps of giant gas planets around other stars.

On a more personal note, this was my first ever press release to be picked up by the Weather Channel.

About 

Markus Pössel is a theoretical physicist turned astronomical outreach scientist. He is the managing scientist at the Centre for Astronomy Education and Outreach a Haus der Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Manu January 30, 2014, 12:43 PM

    This is my favorite kind of article, and there’s not nearly enough of them on UT. Thank you!

    • Jeffrey Boerst January 31, 2014, 6:26 AM

      Indeed! behind-the-scenes is SO informative in ANY subject, let alone something like astronomy…

    • Goksu January 31, 2014, 6:44 AM

      Ditto above. I also also like the links in the articles in UT that allow to get to the source for more info or similar. only thing I don’t like is to have to click the previous posts link instead of scrolling till last read article (nothing is perfect).
      Keep up the good work, and post more. :)

    • Nancy Atkinson January 31, 2014, 9:58 AM

      I think it’s safe to say there’s not many articles like this anywhere, so we’re extremely grateful to Markus for sharing this inside story!

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