Stormy with a Chance of Molten Iron Rain: First Ever Map of Exotic Weather on Brown Dwarfs

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

Think the weather is nasty this winter here on Earth? Try vacationing on the brown dwarf Luhman 16B sometime.

Two studies out this week from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy based at Heidelberg, Germany offer the first look at the atmospheric features of a brown dwarf.

A brown dwarf is a substellar object which bridges the gap between at high mass planet at over 13 Jupiter masses, and a low mass red dwarf star at above 75 Jupiter masses. To date, few brown dwarfs have been directly imaged. For the study, researchers used the recently discovered brown dwarf pair Luhman 16A & B. At about 45(A) and 40(B) Jupiter masses, the pair is 6.5 light years distant and located in the constellation Vela. Only Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s Star are closer to Earth. Luhman A is an L-type brown dwarf, while the B component is a T-type substellar object.

More to the story: Read a “behind the scenes” account of how this discovery was made — from the proposal to the press release.

“Previous observations have inferred that brown dwarfs have mottled surfaces, but now we can start to directly map them.” Ian Crossfield of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy said in this week’s press release. “What we see is presumably patchy cloud cover, somewhat like we see on Jupiter.”

To construct these images, astronomers used an indirect technique known as Doppler imaging. This method takes advantage of the minute shifts observed as the rotating features on brown dwarf approach and recede from the observer.  Doppler speeds of features can also hint at the latitudes being observed as well as the body’s inclination or tilt to our line of sight.

But you won’t need a jacket, as researchers gauge the weather on Luhman 16B be in the 1100 degrees Celsius range, with a rain of molten iron in a predominately hydrogen atmosphere.

The study was carried out using the CRyogenic InfraRed Echelle Spectrograph (CRIRES) mounted on the 8-metre Very Large Telescope based at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal observatory complex in Chile. CRIRES obtained the spectra necessary to re-construct the brown dwarf map, while backup brightness measurements were accomplished using the GROND (Gamma-Ray Burst Optical/Near-Infrared Detector) astronomical camera affixed to the 2.2 metre telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory.


A closeup of the GROND instrument (the blue cylinder to the lower left) on the La Silla 2.2-metre telescope. Credit-ESO/European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.

The next phase of observations will involve imaging brown dwarfs using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument, set to go online at the Very Large Telescope facility later this year.

And that may just usher in a new era of directly imaging features on objects beyond our solar system, including exoplanets.

“The exciting bit is that this is just the start. With the next generations of telescopes, and in particular the 39-metre European Large Telescope, we will likely see surface maps of more distant brown dwarfs — and eventually, a surface map for a young giant planet,” said Beth Biller, a researcher previously based at the Max Planck Institute and now based at the University of Edinburgh.  Biller’s study of the pair went even more in-depth, analyzing changes in brightness at different wavelengths to peer into the atmospheric structure of the brown dwarfs at varying depths.

“We’ve learned that the weather pattern on these brown dwarfs are quite complex,” Biller said. “The cloud structure of the brown dwarf varies quite strongly as a function of atmospheric depth and cannot be explained with single layer clouds.”


A rotational surface map of Luhman 16B Credit-ESO/I. Crossfield.

The paper on brown dwarf weather pattern map comes out today in the January 30th, 2014 edition of Nature under the title Mapping Patchy Clouds on a Nearby Brown Dwarf.

The brown dwarf pair targeted in the study was designated Luhman 16A & B after Pennsylvania State University researcher Kevin Luhman, who  discovered the pair in mid-March, 2013. Luhman has discovered 16 binary systems to date. The WISE catalog designation for the system has the much more cumbersome and phone number-esque designation of WISE J104915.57-531906.1.

We caught up with the researchers to ask them some specifics on the orientation and rotation of the pair.

“The rotation period of Luhman 16B was previously measured watching the brown dwarf’s globally-averaged brightness changes over many days. Luhman 16A seems to have a uniformly thick layer of clouds, so it exhibits no such variation and we don’t yet know its period,” Crossfield told Universe Today. “We can estimate the inclination of the rotation axis because we know the rotation period, we know how big brown dwarfs are, and in our study, we measured the “projected” rotational velocity. From this, we know we must be seeing the brown dwarf near equator-on.”

The maps constructed correspond with an amazingly fast rotation period of just under 6 hours for Luhman 16B. For context, the planet Jupiter – one of the fastest rotators in our solar system – spins once every 9.9 hours.

“The rotational period of Luhman 16B is known from 12 nights of variability monitoring,” Biller told Universe Today. “The variability in the B component is consistent with the results from 2013, but the A component has a lower amplitude of variability and a somewhat different rotational period of maybe 3-4 hours, but that is still a very tentative result.”

This first mapping of the cloud patterns on a brown dwarf is a landmark, and promises to provide a much better understanding of this transitional class of objects.

Couple this announcement with the recent nearby brown dwarf captured in a direct image,  and its apparent that a new era of exoplanet science is upon us, one where we’ll not only be able to confirm the existence of distant worlds and substellar objects, but characterize what they’re actually like.

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1 Response

  1. I remember back in the late 70’s when I 1st went to a planetarium show at the University of Toledo in Ohio where i am from. after the presentation I asked a grad student who was one there running the show if he thought we’d ever be able to see details on stars or planets around them and he indignantly replied that would never be able to occur. I was really disappointed… I’m so glad to live to see the day that he was wrong… lmao!

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