348 Years Ago, a French Astronomer Monk Might have Witnessed the Collision Between a White and Brown Dwarf Star

This hourglass-shaped figure is named CK Vulpeculae. It was discovered by French Monk-Astronomer Per Dom Anthelme in 1670. A new study identifies it as the remnant of a collision between a white dwarf and a brown dwarf. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. P. S. Eyres

There’s something poignant and haunting about ancient astronomers documenting things in the sky whose nature they could only guess at. It’s true in the case of Père Dom Anthelme, who in 1670 saw a star suddenly burst into view near the head of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. The object was visible with the naked eye for two years, as it flared in the sky repeatedly. Then it went dark. We call that object CK Vulpeculae.

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Is it a Massive Planet or a Tiny Brown Dwarf. This Object is Right at the Border Between Planet and Star

Rogue planets are a not-too-uncommon occurrence in our Universe. In fact, within our galaxy alone, it is estimated that there are billions of rogue planets, perhaps even more than there are stars. These objects are basically planet-mass objects that have been ejected from their respective star systems (where they formed), and now orbit the center of the Milky Way. But it is especially surprising to find one orbiting so close to our own Solar System!

In 2016, scientists detected what appeared to be either a brown dwarf or a star orbiting just 20 light years beyond our Solar System. However, using the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), a team of astronomers recently concluded that it is right at the boundary between a massive planet and a brown dwarf. This, and other mysterious things about this object, represent a mystery and an opportunity to astronomers!

The study which describes their findings recently appeared the Astrophysical Journal under the title “The Strongest Magnetic Fields on the Coolest Brown Dwarfs.” The team was led by Melodie Kao – who led this study while a graduate student at Caltech, and is now a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University – and included members from Arizona State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of California San Diego.

To summarize, brown dwarfs are objects that are too massive to be considered planets, but not massive enough to become stars. Originally, such objects were not thought to emit radio waves, but in 2001, a team using the VLA discovered a brown dwarf that exhibited both strong radio emissions and magnetic activity. Ongoing observations also revealed that some brown dwarfs have strong auroras, similar to the gas giants in our Solar System.

This particular object, known as SIMP J01365663+0933473, was first discovered in 2016 by the Caltech team as one of five brown dwarfs. This survey was part of VLA study to gain new knowledge about magnetic fields and the mechanisms by which the coolest astronomical objects can produce strong radio emissions. Since brown dwarfs are incredibly difficult to measure, the object was initially though to be too old and too massive to be a brown dwarf.

However, last year, an independent team of scientists discovered that SIMP J01365663+0933473 was part of a very young group of stars whose age, size and mass indicated that it was likely to be a free-floating (aka. rogue) planet rather than a star. In short, the object was determined to be 200 million years old, 1.22 times the radius of Jupiter and 12.7 times its mass.

It was also estimated to have a surface temperature of about 825 °C (1500 °F) – compared to the Sun’s, which is 5,500 °C (9932 °F). Simultaneously, the Caltech team that originally detected its radio emission in 2016 observed it again in a new study at even higher radio frequencies. From this, they confirmed that its magnetic field was even stronger than first measured, roughly 200 times stronger than Jupiter’s.

As Dr. Kao explained in a recent NRAO press release, this all presents a rather mysterious find:

“This object is right at the boundary between a planet and a brown dwarf, or ‘failed star,’ and is giving us some surprises that can potentially help us understand magnetic processes on both stars and planets… When it was announced that SIMP J01365663+0933473 had a mass near the deuterium-burning limit, I had just finished analyzing its newest VLA data.”

In short, the VLA observations provided both the first radio detection and the first measurement of the magnetic field of a planetary-mass object beyond our Solar System. The presence of a such a strong magnetic field represents a huge challenge to astronomers’ understanding of the dynamo mechanisms that create magnetic fields in brown dwarfs, not to mention the mystery of what drives their auroras.

Ever since brown dwarfs were observed to have auroral activity, scientists have wondered what could be powering them. On Earth, as with Jupiter and the other Solar planets that experience them, aurorae are the result of solar wind interacting with a planet’s magnetic field. But in the case of brown dwarfs, which have no parent star, some other mechanism must be involved. As Kao explained:

“This particular object is exciting because studying its magnetic dynamo mechanisms can give us new insights on how the same type of mechanisms can operate in extrasolar planets — planets beyond our Solar System. We think these mechanisms can work not only in brown dwarfs, but also in both gas giant and terrestrial planets.”

An artist’s conception of a T-type brown dwarf. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Tyrogthekreeper

Kao and her team think that one possibility is that this object has an orbiting planet or moon that is interacting with its magnetic field, similar to what happens between Jupiter and its moon Io. Given its proximity to our Solar System, scientists will have the opportunity to address this and other questions, and to learn a great deal about the mechanics that power gas giants and brown dwarfs.

Studying this object will also help astronomers place more accurate constraints on the dividing line between massive planets and brown dwards. And last, but not least, it also presents new opportunities as far exoplanet research is concerned. As Gregg Hallinan, who was Dr. Kao’s advisor and a co-author on the Caltech study, explained:

“Detecting SIMP J01365663+0933473 with the VLA through its auroral radio emission also means that we may have a new way of detecting exoplanets, including the elusive rogue ones not orbiting a parent star.”

Between finding planets that orbit distant stars to planetary-mass objects that orbit the center of the Milky Way, astronomers are making exciting discoveries that are pushing the boundaries of what we know about planetary formation and the different types that can exist. And with next-generation instruments coming online, they plan to learn a great deal more!

Further Reading: NRAO, The Astrophysical Journal

Astronomers Observe a Pulsar 6500 Light-Years From Earth and See Two Separate Flares Coming off its Surface

Astronomy can be a tricky business, owing to the sheer distances involved. Luckily, astronomers have developed a number of tools and strategies over the years that help them to study distant objects in greater detail. In addition to ground-based and space-based telescopes, there’s also the technique known as gravitational lensing, where the gravity of an intervening object is used to magnify light coming from a more distant object.

Recently, a team of Canadian astronomers used this technique to observe an eclipsing binary millisecond pulsar located about 6500 light years away. According to a study produced by the team, they observed two intense regions of radiation around one star (a brown dwarf) to conduct observations of the other star (a pulsar) – which happened to be the highest resolution observations in astronomical history.

The study, titled “Pulsar emission amplified and resolved by plasma lensing in an eclipsing binary“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Robert Main, a PhD astronomy student at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, and included members from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The system they observed is known as the “Black Widow Pulsar”, a binary system that consists of a brown dwarf and a millisecond pulsar orbiting closely to each other. Because of their close proximity to one another, scientists have determined that the pulsar is actively siphoning material from its brown dwarf companion and will eventually consume it. Discovered in 1988, the name “Black Widow” has since come to be applied to other similar binaries.

The observations made by the Canadian team were made possible thanks to the rare geometry and characteristics of the binary – specifically, the “wake” or comet-like tail of gas that extends from the brown dwarf to the pulsar. As Robert Main, the lead author of the paper, explained in a Dunlap Institute press release:

“The gas is acting like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar. We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”

Like all pulsars, the “Black Widow” is a rapidly rotating neutron star that spins at a rate of over 600 times a second. As it spins, it emits beams of radiation from its two polar hotspots, which have a strobing effect when observed from a distance. The brown dwarf, meanwhile, is about one third the diameter of the Sun, is located roughly two million km from the pulsar and orbits it once every 9 hours.

Image of the pulsar surrounded by its bow shock. White rays indicate particles of matter and antimatter being spewed from the star. Its companion star is too close to the pulsar to be visible at this scale. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Because they are so close together, the brown dwarf is tidally-locked to the pulsar and is blasted by strong radiation. This intense radiation heats one side of the relatively cool brown dwarf to temperatures of about 6000 °C (10,832 °F), the same temperature as our Sun. Because of the radiation and gases passing between them, the emissions coming from the pulsar interfere with each other, which makes them difficult to study.

However, astronomers have long understood that these same regions could be used as “interstellar lenses” that could localize pulsar emission regions, thus allowing for their study. In the past, astronomers have only been able to resolve emission components marginally. But thanks to the efforts of Main and his colleagues, they were able observing two intense radiation flares located 20 kilometers apart.

In addition to being an unprecedentedly high-resolution observation, the results of this study could provide insight into the nature of the mysterious phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). As Main explained:

“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses. The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”

It is an exciting time for astronomers, where improved instruments and methods are not only allowing for more accurate observations, but also providing data that could resolve long-standing mysteries. It seems that every few days, fascinating new discoveries are being made!

Further Reading: University of Toronto, Nature

Where’s the Line Between Massive Planet and Brown Dwarf Star?

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026, observed by NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become stars. Image credit: NASA

When is a Brown Dwarf star not a star at all, but only a mere Gas Giant? And when is a Gas Giant not a planet, but a celestial object more akin to a Brown Dwarf? These questions have bugged astronomers for years, and they go to the heart of a new definition for the large celestial bodies that populate solar systems.

An astronomer at Johns Hopkins University thinks he has a better way of classifying these objects, and it’s not based only on mass, but on the company the objects keep, and how the objects formed. In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, Kevin Schlaufman made his case for a new system of classification that could helps us all get past some of the arguments about which object is a gas giant planet or a brown dwarf. Mass is the easy-to-understand part of this new definition, but it’s not the only factor. How the object formed is also key.

In general, the less massive a star, the cooler it is. Though stars smaller than our Sun can still sustain heat-producing fusion reactions, protostars that are too small cannot. These “failed” stars are commonly known as brown dwarfs, and a new definition puts their range from between 10-75 times the mass of Jupiter. This artist’s concept compares the size of a brown dwarf to that of Earth, Jupiter, a low-mass star, and the Sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).
In general, the less massive a star, the cooler it is. Though stars smaller than our Sun can still sustain heat-producing fusion reactions, protostars that are too small cannot. These “failed” stars are commonly known as brown dwarfs, and a new definition puts their range from between 10-75 times the mass of Jupiter. This artist’s concept compares the size of a brown dwarf to that of Earth, Jupiter, a low-mass star, and the Sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCB).

Schlaufman is an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy. He has set a limit for what we should call a planet, and that limit is between 4 and 10 times the mass of our Solar System’s biggest planet, Jupiter. Above that, you’ve got yourself a Brown Dwarf star. (Brown Dwarfs are also called sub-stellar objects, or failed stars, because they never grew massive enough to become stars.)

“An upper boundary on the masses of planets is one of the most prominent details that was missing.” – Kevin Schlaufman, Johns Hopkins University, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy.

Improvements in observing other solar systems have led to this new definition. Where previously we only had our own Solar System as reference, we now can observe other solar systems with increasing effectiveness. Schlaufman observed 146 solar systems, and that allowed him to fill in some of the blanks in our understanding of brown dwarf and planet formation.

An image of Jupiter showing its storm systems. According to a new definition, Jupiter would be considered a brown dwarf if it had grown to over 10 times its mass when it was formed. Image: Gemini
An image of Jupiter showing its storm systems. According to a new definition, Jupiter would be considered a brown dwarf if it had grown to over 10 times its mass when it was formed. Image: Gemini

“While we think we know how planets form in a big picture sense, there’s still a lot of detail we need to fill in,” Schlaufman said. “An upper boundary on the masses of planets is one of the most prominent details that was missing.”

Let’s back up a bit and look at how Brown Dwarfs and Gas Giants are related.

Solar systems are formed from clouds of gas and dust. In the early days of a solar system, one or more stars are formed out of this cloud by gravitational collapse. They ignite with fusion and become the stars we see everywhere in the Universe. The leftover gas and dust forms into planets, or brown dwarfs. This is a simplified version of solar system formation, but it serves our purposes.

In our own Solar System, only a single star formed: the Sun. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn gobbled up most of the rest of the material. Jupiter gobbled up the lion’s share, making it the largest planet. But what if conditions had been different and Jupiter had kept growing? According to Schlaufman, if it had kept growing to over 10 times the size it is now, it would have become a brown dwarf. But that’s not where the new definition ends.

Metallicity and Chemical Makeup

Mass is only part of it. What’s really behind his new classification is the way in which the object formed. This involves the concept of metallicity in stars.

Stars have a metallicity content. In astrophysics, this means the fraction of a star’s mass that is not hydrogen or helium. So any element from lithium on down is considered a metal. These metals are what rocky planets form from. The early Universe had only hydrogen and helium, and almost insignificant amounts of the next two elements, lithium and beryllium. So the first stars had no metallicity, or almost none.

This is an image of M80, an ancient globular cluster of stars. Since these stars formed in the early universe, their metallicity content is very low. This means that gas giants like Jupiter would be rare or non-existent here, while brown dwarfs are likely plentiful. Image: By NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA - Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6449278
This is an image of M80, an ancient globular cluster of stars. Since these stars formed in the early universe, their metallicity content is very low. This means that gas giants like Jupiter would be rare or non-existent here, while brown dwarfs are likely plentiful. Image: By NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA – Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6449278

But now, 13.5 billion years after the Big Bang, younger stars like our Sun have more metal in them. That’s because generations of stars have lived and died, and created the metals taken up in subsequent star formation. Our own Sun was formed about 5 billion years ago, and it has the metallicity we expect from a star with its birthdate. It’s still overwhelmingly made of hydrogen and helium, but about 2% of its mass is made of other elements, mostly oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.

This is where Schlaufman’s study comes in. According to him, we can distinguish between gas giants like Jupiter, and brown dwarfs, by the nature of the star they orbit. The types of planets that form around stars mirror the metallicity of the star itself. Gas giants like Jupiter are usually found orbiting stars with metallicity equal to or greater than our Sun. But brown dwarfs aren’t picky; they form around almost any star. Why?

Brown Dwarfs and Planets Form Differently

Planets like Jupiter are formed by accretion. A rocky core forms, then gas collects around it. Once the process is done, you have a gas giant. For this to happen, you need metals. If metals are present for these rocky cores to form, their presence will be reflected in the metallicity of the host star.

But brown dwarfs aren’t formed by accretion like planets are. They’re formed the same way stars are; by gravitational collapse. They don’t form from an initial rocky core, so metallicity isn’t a factor.

This brings us back to Kevin Schlaufman’s study. He wanted to find out the mass at which point an object doesn’t care about the metallicity of the star they orbit. He concluded that objects above 10 times the mass of Jupiter don’t care if the star has rocky elements, because they don’t form from rocky cores. Hence, they’re not planets akin to Jupiter; they’re brown dwarfs that formed by gravitational collapse.

What Does It Matter What We Call Them?

Let’s look at the Pluto controversy to understand why names are important.

The struggle to accurately classify all the objects we see out there in space is ongoing. Who can forget the plight of poor Pluto? In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto, and stripped it of its long-standing status as a planet. Why?

Because the new definition of what a planet is relied on these three criteria:

  • a planet is in orbit around a star.
  • a planet must have sufficient mass to assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape.)
  • a planet has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit

The more we looked at Pluto with better telescopes, the more we realized that it did not meet the third criteria, so it was demoted to Dwarf Planet. Sorry Pluto.

Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet based on our growing understanding of its nature. Will Schlaufman's new study help us more accurately classify gas giants and brown dwarfs? NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet based on our growing understanding of its nature. Will Schlaufman’s new study help us more accurately classify gas giants and brown dwarfs? NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Our naming conventions for astronomical objects are important, because they help people understand how everything fits together. But sometimes the debate over names can get tiresome. (The Pluto debate is starting to wear out its welcome, which is why some suggest we just call them all “worlds.”)

Though the Pluto debate is getting tiresome, it’s still important. We need some way of understanding what makes objects different, and names that reflect that difference. And the names have to reflect something fundamental about the objects in question. Should Pluto really be considered the same type of object as Jupiter? Are both really planets in the same sense? The IAU says no.

The same principle holds true with brown dwarfs and gas giants. Giving them names based solely on their mass doesn’t really tell us much. Schlaufman aims to change that.

His new definition makes sense because it relies on how and where these objects form, not simply their size. But not everyone will agree, of course.

Let the debate begin.

A Brown Dwarf Prevented a Regular Star from Going Through its Full Life Cycle

Eclipsing binary star systems are relatively common in our Universe. To the casual observer, these systems look like a single star, but are actually composed of two stars orbiting closely together. The study of these systems offers astronomers an opportunity to directly measure the fundamental properties (i.e. the masses and radii) of these systems respective stellar components.

Recently, a team of Brazilian astronomers observed a rare sight in the Milky Way – an eclipsing binary composed of  a white dwarf and a low-mass brown dwarf. Even more unusual was the fact that the white dwarf’s life cycle appeared to have been prematurely cut short by its brown dwarf companion, which caused its early death by slowly siphoning off material and “starving” it to death.

The study which detailed their findings, titled “HS 2231+2441: an HW Vir system composed by a low-mass white dwarf and a brown dwarf“, was recently published the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Leonardo Andrade de Almeida, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of São Paolo’s Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics, and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG-USP), along with members from the National Institute for Space Research (MCTIC), and the State University of Feira de Santana.

The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, located on the island of La Palma. Credit: IAC

For the sake of their study, the team conducted observations of a binary star system between 2005 and 2013 using the Pico dos Dias Observatory in Brazil. This data was then combined with information from the William Herschel Telescope, which is located in the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma. This system, known as of HS 2231+2441, consists of a white dwarf star and a brown dwarf companion.

White dwarfs, which are the final stage of intermediate or low-mass stars, are essentially what is left after a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel and blown off its outer layers. A brown dwarf, on the other hand, is a substellar object that has a mass which places it between that of a star and a planet. Finding a binary system consisting of both objects together in the same system is something astronomers don’t see everyday.

As Leonardo Andrade de Almeida explained in a FAPESP press release, “This type of low-mass binary is relatively rare. Only a few dozen have been observed to date.”

This particular binary pair consists of a white dwarf that is between twenty to thirty percent the Sun’s mass – 28,500 K (28,227 °C; 50,840 °F) – while the brown dwarf is roughly 34-36 times that of Jupiter. This makes HS 2231+2441 the least massive eclipsing binary system studied to date.

This artist’s impression shows an eclipsing binary star system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

In the past, the primary (the white dwarf) was a normal star that evolved faster than its companion since it was more massive. Once it exhausted its hydrogen fuel, its formed a helium-burning core. At this point, the star was on its way to becoming a red giant, which is what happens when Sun-like stars exit their main sequence phase. This would have been characterized by a massive expansion, with its diameter exceeding 150 million km (93.2 million mi).

At this point, Almeida and his colleagues concluded that it began interacting gravitationally with its secondary (the brown dwarf). Meanwhile, the brown dwarf began to be attracted and engulfed by the primary’s atmosphere (i.e. its envelop), which caused it it lose orbital angular momentum. Eventually, the powerful force of attraction exceeded the gravitational force keeping the envelop anchored to its star.

Once this happened, the primary star’s outer layers began to be stripped away, exposing its helium core and sending massive amounts of matter to the brown dwarf. Because of this loss of mass, the remnant effectively died, becoming a white dwarf. The brown dwarf then began orbiting its white dwarf primary with a short orbital period of just three hours. As Almeida explained:

“This transfer of mass from the more massive star, the primary object, to its companion, which is the secondary object, was extremely violent and unstable, and it lasted a short time… The secondary object, which is now a brown dwarf, must also have acquired some matter when it shared its envelope with the primary object, but not enough to become a new star.”

Artist’s impression of a brown dwarf orbiting a white dwarf star. Credit: ESO

This situation is similar to what astronomers noticed this past summer while studying the binary star system known as WD 1202-024. Here too, a brown dwarf companion was discovered orbiting a white dwarf primary. What’s more, the team responsible for the discovery indicated that the brown dwarf was likely pulled closer to the white dwarf once it entered its Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase.

At this point, the brown dwarf stripped the primary of its atmosphere, exposing the white dwarf remnant core. Similarly, the interaction of the primary with a brown dwarf companion caused premature stellar death. The fact that two such discoveries have happened within a short period of time is quite fortuitous. Considering the age of the Universe (which is roughly 13.8 billion years old), dead objects can only be formed in binary systems.

In the Milky Way alone, about 50% of low-mass stars exist as part of a binary system while high mass stars exist almost exclusively in binary pairs. In these cases, roughly three-quarters will interact in some way with a companion – exchanging mass, accelerating their rotations, and eventually en merging.

As Almeida indicated, the study of this binary system and those like it could seriously help astronomers understand how hot, compact objects like white dwarfs are formed. “Binary systems offer a direct way of measuring the main parameter of a star, which is its mass,” he said. “That’s why binary systems are crucial to our understanding of the life cycle of stars.”

It has only been in recent years that low-mass white dwarf stars were discovered. Finding binary systems where they coexist with brown dwarfs – essentially, failed stars – is another rarity. But with every new discovery, the opportunities to study the range of possibilities in our Universe increases.

Further Reading: São Paulo Research Foundation, MNRAS

This is Kind of Sad. Astronomers Find a Failed Star Orbiting a Dead Star

Death is simply a part of life, and this is no less the case where stars and other astronomical objects are concerned. Sure, the timelines are much, much greater where these are concerned, but the basic rule is the same. Much like all living organism, stars eventually reach old age and become white dwarfs. And some are not even fortunate enough to be born, instead becoming a class of failed stars known as brown dwarfs.

Despite being familiar with these objects, astronomers were certainly not expecting to find examples of both in a single star system! And yet, according to a new study, that is precisely what an international team of astronomers discovered when looked at WD 1202-024. Using data from the Kepler space telescope, they spotted a binary system consisting of a failed star (a brown dwarf) and the remnant of a star (a white dwarf).

The team which made the discovery consisted of researchers from the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at MIT, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Exoplanet Research Institute (iREx) and NASA’s Ames Research Center. The study that describes their findings, titled “WD 1202-024: The Shortest-Period Pre-Cataclysmic Variable“, was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Artist’s impression of a T-type brown dwarf. Credit: Tyrogthekreeper under a Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Originally, the white dwarf was identified by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) – designated as WD1202-024 – and was thought to be a solitary star. However, while examining the light-curves of stars that had been surveyed by the K2 mission, Dr. Saul Rappaport (M.I.T.) and Andrew Vanderburg (of the CfA) – the lead author and a co-authors on the study, respectively – noted a curious drop in its brightness.

Whereas the transits of exoplanets are known to cause small dips in brightness, the light curve in this case showed particularly deep and broad eclipses. In addition, between these eclipses, there were changes in brightness which appeared to be due to the cool component (i.e. the brown dwarf) being illuminated by the much hotter white dwarf. This too was unexpected, as it indicated that the transiting object was rather large.

To get to the bottom of this, the team devised a model based on data obtained from K2 mission, the SDSS survey and the Magellan 6.5-m telescope. They also used data from five different ground-based telescopes on three continents, which included amateur-operated 36-cm and 80-cm telescopes in Arizona, the 1-m telescope at the South African Astronomical Observatory, and the 1.6-m telescope at Mont-Megantic Observatory (‘OMM’) in Quebec.

From this combined data, they were able to deduce that their observations were consistent with a hot white dwarf of 0.4 Solar masses being eclipsed by brown dwarf companion of 0.067 Solar masses. They also determined that these two objects, which are seen nearly edge-on, orbited each other with a period of just 71 minutes and 12 seconds – which works out to a speed of about 100 km/s.

The lightcurve picked up by the K2 mission (black line), with a geometrical model to emulate an illumination effect on the companion star (red line), while the blue line is the fit to the model based on the length of the K2 observations.. Credit: UBishop

But as Lorne Nelson – a professor at Bishop’s University and one of the co-authors on the paper – explained, the team also wanted to address how this system came to be. “We had constructed a robust model but we still had to address the ‘big-picture’ issues such as how this system formed and what would be its ultimate fate,” he said.

To do this, they used sophisticated computer models to simulate the formation and evolution of WD1202. According to their scenario, the primordial system consisted of a 1.25 Solar mass star and a brown dwarf that were in a 150 day orbit with each other. As the star aged, it began to expand, becoming a red giant that eventually pulled its brown dwarf companion into a much tighter orbit.

They also constructed a 3-D animation to illustrate the effect this had. As Nelson described it:

“It is similar to an egg-beater effect. The brown dwarf spirals in towards the center of the red giant and causes most of the mass of the red giant to be lifted off of the core and to be expelled. The result is a brown dwarf in an extraordinarily tight, short-period orbit with the hot helium core of the giant. That core then cools and becomes the white dwarf that we observe today.”

In addition, their calculations showed that the primordial binary must have formed about 3 billion years ago, and that in less than 250 million years, the white dwarf will begin cannibalizing the brown dwarf. At this point, the brown dwarf is likely to be pulled apart and form a circumstellar disk around the white dwarf, which it will slowly accrete material from.

Artist’s impression of the star in its multi-million year long and previously unobservable phase as a large, red supergiant. Credit: CAASTRO / Mats Björklund (Magipics)

When this happens, the binary will begin showing the signs of a cataclysmic variable (CV), which include a flickering lightcurve. And in the end, it is likely that the entire system will go out in a fiery cataclysm – aka. a type 1a supernova. It should also be noted that this 250 year period is the shortest pre-cataclysmic variable of any binary system ever discovered, making this find even more of a rarity.

So perhaps the find was not so sad after all. Yes, a failed star is orbiting a star in its death throes, but its important to remember they were not always this way. At one time, WD 1202-024 was a vital star that was orbited by a super-heavy gas giant. Only in approaching death did the two become so tight in their orbits, and the perfect picture of failed stardom and near-stellar-death. And in time, they will come together to produce a cataclysmic explosion. I think we can all agree, its best to go out with a bang!

The findings of this study were presented at a press conference last week (on Tuesday, June 6th, 2017) at the 230th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Further Reading: Bishop’s University, MNRAS

A Planet With A 27,000 Year Orbit & That’s Just Where The Strangeness Begins

Every planet in the Solar System has its own peculiar orbit, and these vary considerably. Whereas planet Earth takes 365.25 days to complete a single orbit about our Sun, Mars takes almost twice as long – 686.971 days. Then you have Jupiter and the other gas giants, which take between 11.86 and 164.8 years to orbit our Sun. But even with these serving as examples, astronomers were not prepared for what they found when they looked at CVSO 30.

This star system, which lies some 1200 light years from Earth, has been found in recent years to have two candidate exoplanets. These planets, which are many times the mass of Jupiter, were discovered by an international team of astronomers using both the Transit Method and Direct Imaging. And what they found was very interesting: one planet has an orbital period of less than 11 days while the other takes a whopping 27,000 years to orbit its parent star!

In addition to being a big surprise, the detection of these two planets using different methods was an historic achievement. Up until now, the vast majority of the over 2,000 exoplanets discovered have been detected thanks to indirect methods. These include the aforementioned Transit Method, which detects planets by measuring the dimming effect they cause when crossing their parent star’s path, and the Radial Velocity Method, which measures the gravitational effect planets have on their parent star.

In 2012, astronomers used the Transit Method to detect CVSO 30b, a planet with 5 to 6 times the mass of Jupiter, and which orbits its star at a distance of only 1.2 million kilometers (by comparison, Mercury orbits our Sun at a distance of 58 million kilometers). From these characteristics, CVSO 30b can be described as a particularly “hot-Jupiter”.

In contrast, Direct Imaging has been used to spot only a few dozen exoplanets. The reason for this is because it is typically quite difficult to detect the light reflected by a planet’s atmosphere due it being drowned out by the light of its parent star. It can also be quite demanding when it comes to the instrument involved. Still, compared to indirect methods, it can be more effective when it comes to exploring the remote regions of a star.

Thanks to the efforts of an international team of astronomers, who combined the use of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Spanish National Research Council’s (CSIC) Calar Alto Observatory, CVSO 30c was spotted in remote regions around its parent star, orbiting at a distance of around 666 AU.

The details of the discovery were published in a paper titled “Direct Imaging discovery of a second planet candidate around the possibly transiting planet host CVSO 30“. In it, the researchers – who hail from such prestigious institutions as the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the Jena Observatory, the European Space Agency and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy – explained the methods used to find the exoplanet, and the significance of its discovery.

The star CVSO30, showing the two detection methods that revealed its exoplanet candidates. Credit: Keck Observatory/ESO/VLT/NACO
The star CVSO30, showing the two detection methods that revealed its exoplanet candidates. Credit: Keck Observatory/ESO/VLT/NACO

As Tobias Schmidt – of the University of Hamburg, the Astrophysical Institute and University Observatory Jena, and the lead author of the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“[30b and 30c] are both unusual on their own. CVSO 30b is the first transiting planet around a star as young as 2.5 million years. Published in 2012, all previously detected transiting planets were older than few hundred million years… It has been a surprise to find a planetary mass companion at 662 AU, or 662 times the distance from Earth to the Sun, from a primary star having only about 0.4 solar masses. According to the standard model, planets form in disks around the star. But none of the observed disks around such low-mass stars is large enough to form such an object.”

In other words, it is surprising to find two exoplanet candidates with several times the mass of Jupiter (aka. Super-Jupiters) orbiting a star as small as CVSO 30. But to find two exoplanets with such a disparity in terms of their respective distance from their star (despite being similar in mass) was particularly surprising.

Relying on high-contrast photometric and spectroscopic observations from the Very Large Telescope, the Keck telescopes and the Calar Alto observatory, the international team was able to spot 30c using a technique known as lucky imaging. This process, which is used by ground-based telescopes, involves many high-speed, quick exposure photos being taken to minimize atmospheric interference.

An artist's conception of a T-type brown dwarf. (Credit: Tyrogthekreeper under a Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
An artist’s conception of a T-type brown dwarf. Credit: Tyrogthekreeper/Wikimedia Commons.

What they found was an exoplanet with a wide orbit that was between 4 and 5 Jupiter masses, and was also very young – less than 10 million years old. What’s more, the spectroscopic data indicated that it is unusually blue for a planet, as most other planet candidates of its kind are very red. The researchers concluded from this that it is likely that 30c is the first young planet of its kind to be directly imaged.

They further concluded that 30 c is also likely the first “L-T transition object” younger than 10 million years to be found orbiting a star. L-T transition objects are a type of brown dwarf – objects that are too large to be considered planets, but too small to be considered stars. Typically they are found embedded in large clouds of gas and dust, or on their own in space.

Paired with its companion – 30 b, which is impossibly close to its parent star – 30 c is not believed to have formed at its current position, and is likely not stable in the long-term. At least, not where current models of planetary formation and orbit are concerned. However, as Prof. Schmidt indicated, this offers a potential explanation for the odd nature of these exoplanets.

“We do think this is a very good hint,” he said, “that the two objects might have formed regularly around the star at a separation comparable to Jupiter or Saturn’s separation from the Sun, then interacted gravitationally and were scattered to their current orbits. However this is still speculation, further investigations will try to prove this. Both have about the same mass of few Jupiter masses, the inner one might be even lower.”

The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it's adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl
The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it’s adaptive optics laser. Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl

The discovery is also significant since it was the first time that these two detection methods – Transit and Direct Imaging – were used to confirm exoplanet candidates around the same star. In this case, the methods were quite complimentary, and present opportunities to learn more about exoplanets. As Professor Schmidt explained:

“Both Transit method and radial velocity method have problems finding planets around young stars, as the activity of young stars is disturbing the search for them. CVSO 30 b was the first very young planet found with these methods, currently a hand full of candidates exist. Direct imaging, on the other hand, is working best for young planets as they still contract and are thus self-luminous. It is therefore great luck that a far out planet was found around the very first young star hosting a inner planet…

“However, the real advantage of transit and direct imaging methods is that the two objects can now be investigated in greater detail. While we can use the direct light from the imaging for spectroscopy, i.e. split the light according to its wavelength, we hope to achieve the same for the inner planet candidate. This is possible as the light passes through the atmosphere of the planet during transits and some of the elements are absorbed by the composition material of the atmosphere. So we do hope to learn a lot about planet formation, thus also formation of the early Solar System and about young planets in particular from the CVSO 30 system.”

Since astronomers first began began to find exoplanet candidates in distant star systems, we have come to learn just how diverse our Universe really is. Many of the discoveries have challenged our notions about where planets can form around their parent star, while others have showed us that planets can take many different forms.

As time goes on and our exploration of the local Universe advances, we will be challenged to find explanations for how it all fits together. And from that, new and more comprehensive models will no doubt emerge.

Further Reading: IAA, arXiv

Can Stars Be Cold?

If you’ve heard me say “oot and aboot”, you know I’m a Canadian. And we Canadians are accustomed to a little cold. Okay, a LOT of cold. It’s not so bad here on the West Coast, but folks from Winnepeg can endure temperatures colder than the surface of Mars.  Seriously, who lives like that?

And on one of those cold days, even on a clear sunny day, the Sun is pointless and worthless. As the bone chilling cold numbs your fingers and toes, it’s as if the Sun itself has gone cold, sapping away all the joy and happiness in the world. And don’t get me started about the rain. Clearly, I need to take more tropical vacations.

But we know the Sun isn’t cold at all, it’s just that the atmosphere around you feels cold. The surface of the Sun is always the same balmy 5,500 degrees Celsius. Just to give you perspective, that’s hot enough to melt iron, nickel. Even carbon melts at 2500 C. So, no question, the Sun is hot.

The Sun – It’s pretty hot. Credit: NASA/SDO.

And you know that the Sun is hot because it’s bright. There are actually photons streaming from the Sun at various wavelengths, from radio, infrared, through the visible spectrum, and into the ultraviolet. There are even X-ray photons blasting off the Sun.

If the Sun was cooler, it would look redder, just like a cooler red dwarf star, and if the Sun was hotter, it would appear more blue. But could you have a star that’s cooler, or even downright cold?

The answer is yes, you just have to be willing to expand your definition of what a star is.

Under the normal definition, a star is a collection of hydrogen, helium and other elements that came together by mutual gravity. The intense gravitational pressure of all that mass raised temperatures at the core of the star to the point that hydrogen could be fused into helium. This reaction releases more energy than it takes, which causes the Sun to emit energy.

The coolest possible red dwarf star, one with only 7.5% the mass of the Sun, will still have a temperature of about 2,300 C, a little less than the melting point of carbon.

But if a star doesn’t have enough mass to ignite fusion, it becomes a brown dwarf. It’s heated by the mechanical action of all that mass compressing inward, but it’s cooler. Average brown dwarfs will be about 1,700 C, which actually, is still really hot. Like, molten rock hot.

This artist’s conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Brown dwarfs can actually get a lot cooler, a new class of these “stars” were discovered by the WISE Space Observatory that start at 300 degrees, and go all the way down to about 27 degrees, or room temperature. This means there are stars out there that you could touch.

Except you couldn’t, because they’d still have more than a dozen times the mass of Jupiter, and would tear your arm off with their intense gravity. And anyway, they don’t a solid surface. No, you can’t actually touch them.

That’s about as cold as stars get, today, in the Universe.

But if you’re willing to be very very patient, then it’s a different story. Our own Sun will eventually run out of fuel, die and become a white dwarf. It’ll start out hot, but over the eons, it’ll cool down, eventually becoming the same temperature as the background level of the Universe – just a few degrees above absolute zero. Astronomers call these black dwarfs.

We’re talking a long long time, though, in fact, in the 13.8 billion years that the Universe has been around, no white dwarfs have had enough time to cool down significantly. In fact, it would take about a quadrillion years to get within a few degrees of the cosmic microwave background radiation temperature.

Three New Earth-sized Planets Found Just 40 Light-Years Away

Three more potentially Earthlike worlds have been discovered in our galactic backyard, announced online today by the European Southern Observatory. Researchers using the 60-cm TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile have identified three Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away.

The star, originally classified as 2MASS J23062928-0502285 but now known more conveniently as TRAPPIST-1, is a dim “ultracool” red dwarf star only .05% as bright as our Sun . Located in the constellation Aquarius, it’s now the 37th-farthest star known to host orbiting exoplanets.

The exoplanets were discovered via the transit method (TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) through which the light from a star is observed to dim slightly by planets passing in front of it from our point of view. This is the same method that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has used to find over 1,000 confirmed exoplanets.

Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.
Location of TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius. Credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope.

As an ultracool dwarf TRAPPIST-1 is a very small and dim and isn’t easily visible from Earth, but it’s its very dimness that has allowed its planets to be discovered with existing technology. Their subtle silhouettes may have been lost in the glare of larger, brighter stars.

Follow-up measurements of the three exoplanets indicated that they are all approximately Earth-sized and have temperatures ranging from Earthlike to Venuslike (which is, admittedly, a fairly large range.) They orbit their host star very closely with periods measured in Earth days, not years.

“With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the research paper. “The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System.”

Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star's habitable zone. Credit: PHL.
Structure of the TRAPPIST-1 exosystem. The green is the star’s habitable zone. Credit: PHL.

Although these three new exoplanets are Earth-sized they do not yet classify as “potentially habitable,” at least by the standards of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) operated by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. The planets fall outside PHL’s required habitable zone; two are too close to the host star and one is too far away.

In addition there are certain factors that planets orbiting ultracool dwarfs would have to contend with in order to be friendly to life, not the least of which is the exposure to energetic outbursts from solar flares.

This does not guarantee that the exoplanets are completely uninhabitable, though; it’s entirely possible that there are regions on or within them where life could exist, not unlike Mars or some of the moons in our own Solar System.

The exoplanets are all likely tidally locked in their orbits, so even though the closest two are too hot on their star-facing side and too cold on the other, there may be regions along the east or west terminators that maintain a climate conducive to life.

“Now we have to investigate if they’re habitable,” said co-author Julien de Wit at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “We will investigate what kind of atmosphere they have, and then will search for biomarkers and signs of life.”

Artist's impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.
Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Discovering three planets orbiting such a small yet extremely common type of star hints that there are likely many, many more such worlds in our galaxy and the Universe as a whole.

“So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets,” said study co-author Emmanuel Jehin.

The team’s research was presented in a paper entitled “Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star” and will be published in Nature.

Source: ESO, PHL, and MIT

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Note: the original version of this article described 2MASS J23062928-0502285 (TRAPPIST-1) as a brown dwarf based on its classification on the Simbad archive. But at M8V it is “definitely a star,” according to co-author Julien de Wit in an email, although at the very low end of the red dwarf line. Corrections have been made above.