The coolest brown dwarf has been discovered, with a surface temperature of 623 Kelvin (that’s only 350 Celsius or 660 degrees Fahrenheit). Compare with the surface temperature of our Sun, a modest 6,000 Kelvin, you can see that this featherweight dwarf “star” is a little odd. As far as stars go, this one is pretty unspectacular, but it does hold a vast amount of interest. It may not be as sexy as a supernova or as exotic as a neutron star, the humble brown dwarf may provide the essential link between planets (specifically gas giants) and stars. They are effectively failed stars, and this new discovery demonstrates just how cold they can be…
Brown dwarfs are the link between massive planets and small stars. They have an upper limit of about 80 Jupiter masses, but are not massive enough to sustain nuclear fusion in their core. They do however experience convection from the interior to the surface. The confusion arises when trying to find the lower limit of brown dwarf size, at what mass does the gas giant planet start being a brown dwarf star? This grey area is thought to be characterized by an entirely new stellar type: Y-class dwarfs. Until now Y-class dwarfs have been very elusive and have only existed in theory.
Astronomers using near-infrared and infrared instruments at the Canada France Hawaii and Gemini North telescopes and the European Southern Observatory in Chile have discovered a Y-class dwarf, bringing this strange failed star from theory and into reality. What’s more, it’s in our cosmic neighbourhood, only 40 light-years from Earth. This brown dwarf has been unglamorously named “CFBDS0059”, but I would have called it something like “The Dark Star” or “The Death Star”, as it is so dim and its surface temperature is approximately the same as the surface temperature of the planet Mercury (but much cooler than the surface temperature of Venus). As it is so cool, it isn’t very luminescent and only radiates in the near-infrared wavelengths (it’s not even as hot as a standard electric stove element), requiring specialist equipment to detect it. As it turns out, CFBDS0059 is small, only 15-30 times the mass of Jupiter, fulfilling the lower mass limit of brown dwarf stars and will be known as the first Y-class dwarf to be observed.
But what is the indicator that a Y-class brown dwarf has been observed? Using spectrometers, astronomers have been able to see the constituent compounds making up the brown dwarf’s atmosphere. Should ammonia be discovered, it’s a pretty sure sign that a Y-class dwarf has been found.
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“We are starting to see a little hint of ammonia absorption.” Loic Albert (stellar researcher) of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, commenting on CFBDS0059.
There are two other verified classes of dwarfs, L and T-class dwarfs. L-class dwarfs are hotter, with temperatures from 2200 to 3600°F and T-class dwarfs are cooler than 2190°F and methane-rich. CFBDS0059 is obviously much, much cooler, but researchers believe there may be still cooler dwarfs out there, possibly condensing any water vapour in their atmospheres to form clouds, setting Y-class dwarfs far from the characteristics of its L and T-class cousins. Should they get any colder, water will freeze into ice crystals, giving them more planetary than stellar characteristics.