The definition of a “planet” is one that has seen a great deal of contention. The ad-hoc redefinition has caused much grief for lovers of the demoted Pluto. Yet little attention is paid to the other end of the planetary scale, namely, where the cutoff between a star and a planet lies. The general consensus is that an object capable of supporting deuterium (a form of hydrogen that has a neutron in the nucleus and can undergo fusion at lower temperatures) fusion, is a brown dwarf while, anything below that is a planet. This limit has been estimated to be around 13 Jupiter masses, but while this line in the sand may seem clear initially, a new paper explores the difficulty in pinning down this discriminating factor. For many years, brown dwarfs were mythical creatures. Their low temperatures, even while undergoing deuterium fusion, made them difficult to detect. While many candidates were proposed as brown dwarfs, all failed the discriminating test of having lithium present in their spectrum (which is destroyed by the temperatures of traditional hydrogen fusion). This changed in 1995 when the first object of suitable mass was discovered when the 670.8 nm lithium line was discovered in a star of suitable mass.
Since then, the number of identified brown dwarfs has increased significantly and astronomers have discovered that the lower mass range of purported brown dwarfs seems to overlap with that of massive planets. This includes objects such as CoRoT-3b, a brown dwarf with approximately 22 Jovian masses, which exists in the terminological limbo.
The paper, led by David Speigel of Princeton, investigated a wide range of initial conditions for objects near the deuterium burning limit. Among the variables included, the team considered the initial fraction of helium, deuterium, and “metals” (everything higher than helium on the periodic table). Their simulations revealed that just how much of the deuterium burned, and how fast, was highly dependent on the starting conditions. Objects starting with higher helium concentration required less mass to burn a given amount of deuterium. Similarly, the higher the initial deuterium fraction, the more readily it fused. The differences in required mass were not subtle either. They varied by as much as two Jovian masses, extending as low as a mere 11 times the mass of Jupiter, well below the generally accepted limit.
The authors suggest that because of the inherent confusion in the mass limits, that such a definition may not be the “most useful delineation between planets and brown dwarfs.” As such, they recommend astronomers take extra care in their classifications and realize that a new definition may be necessary. One possible definition could involve considerations of the formation history of objects in the questionable mass range; Objects that formed in disks, around other stars would be considered planets, where objects that formed from gravitational collapse independently of the object they orbit, would be considered brown dwarfs. In the mean time, objects such as CoRoT-3b, will continue to have their taxonomic categorization debated.