When it’s a brown dwarf — but where do we draw the line?

Often called “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are curious cosmic creatures. They’re kind of like swollen, super-dense Jupiters, containing huge amounts of matter yet not quite enough to begin fusing hydrogen in their cores. Still, there has to be some sort of specific tipping point, and astronomers (being the scientists that they are) would like to know: when does a brown dwarf stop and a star begin?

Researchers from Georgia State University now have the answer.

From a press release issued Dec. 9 from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO):

For most of their lives, stars obey a relationship referred to as the main sequence, a relation between luminosity and temperature – which is also a relationship between luminosity and radius. Stars behave like balloons in the sense that adding material to the star causes its radius to increase: in a star the material is the element hydrogen, rather than air which is added to a balloon. Brown dwarfs, on the other hand, are described by different physical laws (referred to as electron degeneracy pressure) than stars and have the opposite behavior. The inner layers of a brown dwarf work much like a spring mattress: adding additional weight on them causes them to shrink. Therefore brown dwarfs actually decrease in size with increasing mass.

Read more: The Secret Origin Story of Brown Dwarfs

As Dr. Sergio Dieterich, the lead author, explained, “In order to distinguish stars from brown dwarfs we measured the light from each object thought to lie close to the stellar/brown dwarf boundary. We also carefully measured the distances to each object. We could then calculate their temperatures and radii using basic physical laws, and found the location of the smallest objects we observed (see the attached illustration, based on a figure in the publication). We see that radius decreases with decreasing temperature, as expected for stars, until we reach a temperature of about 2100K. There we see a gap with no objects, and then the radius starts to increase with decreasing temperature, as we expect for brown dwarfs. “

Dr. Todd Henry, another author, said: “We can now point to a temperature (2100K), radius (8.7% that of our Sun), and luminosity (1/8000 of the Sun) and say ‘the main sequence ends there’ and we can identify a particular star (with the designation 2MASS J0513-1403) as a representative of the smallest stars.”

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin (based on a figure from the publication) Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.

“We can now point to a temperature (2100K), radius (8.7% that of our Sun), and luminosity (1/8000 of the Sun) and say ‘the main sequence ends there’.”

Dr. Todd Henry, RECONS Director

Aside from answering a fundamental question in stellar astrophysics about the cool end of the main sequence, the discovery has significant implications in the search for life in the universe. Because brown dwarfs cool on a time scale of only millions of years, planets around brown dwarfs are poor candidates for habitability, whereas very low mass stars provide constant warmth and a low ultraviolet radiation environment for billions of years. Knowing the temperature where the stars end and the brown dwarfs begin should help astronomers decide which objects are candidates for hosting habitable planets.

The data came from the SOAR (SOuthern Astrophysical Research) 4.1-m telescope and the SMARTS (Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System) 0.9-m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile.

Read more here.

Jason Major

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

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