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

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.