We Now Have a 3D Map of The 525 Closest Brown Dwarfs

Zooniverse brings out the best of the internet – it leverages the skills of average people to perform scientific feats that would be impossible otherwise.  One of the tasks that a Zooniverse project called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has been working on has now resulted in a paper cataloguing 525 brown dwarfs, including 38 never before documented ones.

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Astronomers see Swirling Weather on the Closest Brown Dwarf

An artist's conception of a brown dwarf. A new study identifies CK Vulpeculae as the remnant of a collison between a brown dwarf and a white dwarf. Image: By NASA/JPL-Caltech (http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/image/114) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brown dwarfs are the weird not-planets but not-stars in the universe, and astronomers have wondered for decades if their atmospheres are striped like Jupiter’s, or splotchy like the sun’s. A team of astronomers based at the University of Arizona used NASA’s TESS Observatory to find the answer: if you saw a brown dwarf for yourself, it would look more like a giant planet than a star.

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Astronomers Capture a Direct Image of a Brown Dwarf

The field of exoplanet photography is just getting underway, with astronomers around the world striving to capture clear images of the more than 4000 exoplanets discovered to date. Some of these exoplanets are more interesting to image and research than others.  That is certainly the case for a type of exoplanet called a brown dwarf.  And now scientists have captured the first ever image of exactly that type of exoplanet.

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Astronomers Can Actually See the Clouds and Weather on Brown Dwarf 6.5 Light-Years Away

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

Brown dwarfs are in a tough spot. Not quite a star, not quite a planet, they occupy a place between gas giants and stars. They have more mass than gas giants like Jupiter, but not enough to ignite fusion and become a star.

But astronomers still study them. How could they resist?

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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