This image shows the brown dwarf ISO-Oph 102, or Rho-Oph 102, in the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region. Its position is marked by the crosshairs. This visible-light view was created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin
Brown dwarfs inhabit a kind of fuzzy line between stars and planets: their mass is seemingly too small for them to be full-fledged stars and yet they are too large to be planets. These dim stars were only discovered in 1995 but current estimates say that brown dwarfs could be as numerous as normal stars in our galaxy. Now, astronomers have found a brown dwarf that has a dusty disc encircling it, just like the discs encircling regular, young stars. It contains millimeter-sized solid grains, and around other newborn stars, these discs of cosmic dust are where planets form. Astronomers say this surprising find challenges theories of how rocky, Earth-scale planets form, and suggests that rocky planets may be even more common in the Universe than expected.
Rocky planets are thought to form through the random collision and sticking together of what are initially microscopic particles in the disc of material around a star. These tiny grains are similar to very fine soot or sand. However, in the outer regions around a brown dwarf, astronomers expected that grains could not grow because the discs were too sparse, and particles would be moving too fast to stick together after colliding. Also, prevailing theories say that any grains that manage to form should move quickly towards the central brown dwarf, disappearing from the outer parts of the disc where they could be detected.
“We were completely surprised to find millimeter-sized grains in this thin little disc,” said Luca Ricci of the California Institute of Technology, USA, who led a team of astronomers based in the United States, Europe and Chile. “Solid grains of that size shouldn’t be able to form in the cold outer regions of a disc around a brown dwarf, but it appears that they do. We can’t be sure if a whole rocky planet could develop there, or already has, but we’re seeing the first steps, so we’re going to have to change our assumptions about conditions required for solids to grow,” he said.
Artist’s impression of the disc of dust and gas around a brown dwarf. Credit: ESO
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Ricci and his team used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) for their observations. Even though the telescope is not completely finished yet, ALMA’s high resolution allowed the team to pinpoint carbon monoxide gas around the brown dwarf — the first time that cold molecular gas has been detected in such a disc. This discovery, along with the millimeter-size grains, suggest that the disc is much more similar to the ones around young stars than previously expected.
ALMA, located in the high-altitude Chilean desert is a collection of high precision, dish-shaped antennas that work together as one large telescope to observe the Universe in millimeter-wavelengths, enabling observations of extreme detail and sensitivity. Construction of ALMA is scheduled to finish in 2013, but astronomers began observing with a partial array of ALMA dishes in 2011.
The astronomers pointed ALMA at the young brown dwarf ISO-Oph 102, also known as Rho-Oph 102, in the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The brown dwarf has about 60 times the mass of Jupiter but only 0.06 times that of the Sun, and so has too little mass to ignite the thermonuclear reactions by which ordinary stars shine. However, it emits heat released by its slow gravitational contraction and shines dimly with a reddish color.
The astronomers were able to determine the grains in the disc are a millimeter or more in size.
“ALMA is a powerful new tool for solving mysteries of planetary system formation,” said Leonardo Testi from ESO, a member of the research team. “Trying this with previous generation telescopes would have needed almost a month of observing — impossibly long in practice. But, using just a quarter of ALMA’s final complement of antennas, we were able to do it in less than one hour!” he said.
When ALMA is completed, the team hopes to turn the telescope again towards Rho-Oph 102 and other similar objects.
“We will soon be able to not only detect the presence of small particles in discs,” said Ricci, “but to map how they are spread across the circumstellar disc and how they interact with the gas that we’ve also detected in the disc. This will help us better understand how planets come to be.”