Clouds of Sand and Iron Swirl in a Failed Star’s Extreme Atmosphere

This artist's conception illustrates the brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026. NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes observed the object to learn more about its turbulent atmosphere. Brown dwarfs are more massive and hotter than planets but lack the mass required to become sizzling stars. Their atmospheres can be similar to the giant planet Jupiter's. Spitzer and Hubble simultaneously observed the object as it rotated every 1.4 hours. The results suggest wind-driven, planet-size clouds. Image credit:
This artist's conception illustrates what a "hot jupiter" might look like.

Artist’s concept of brown dwarf  2MASSJ22282889-431026 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The complex weather patterns within the atmosphere of a rapidly-rotating brown dwarf have been mapped in the highest detail ever by researchers using the infrared abilities of NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes… talk about solar wind!

Sometimes referred to as failed stars, brown dwarfs form from condensing gas and dust like regular stars but never manage to gather enough mass to ignite full-on hydrogen fusion in their cores. As a result they more resemble enormous Jupiter-like planets, radiating low levels of heat while possessing bands of wind-driven eddies in their upper atmospheric layers.

Although brown dwarfs are by their nature very dim, and thus difficult to observe in visible wavelengths of light, their heat can be detected by Hubble and the Spitzer Space Telescope — both of which can “see” just fine in near- and far-infrared, respectively.

Led by researchers from the University of Arizona, a team of astronomers used these orbiting observatories on July 7, 2011 to measure the light curves from a brown dwarf named 2MASSJ22282889-431026 (2M2228 for short.) What they found was that while 2M2228 exhibited periodic brightening in both near- and far-infrared over the course of its speedy 1.43-hour rotation, the amount and rate of brightening varied between the different wavelengths detected by the two telescopes.


“With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body.”

– Daniel Apai, principal investigator, University of Arizona

This unexpected variance — or phase shift — most likely indicates different layers of cloud material and wind velocities surrounding 2M2228, swirling around the dwarf star in very much the same way as the stormy cloud bands seen on Jupiter or Saturn.

But while the clouds on Jupiter are made of gases like ammonia and methane, the clouds of 2M2228 are made of much more unusual stuff.

ssc2013-01b_Inline“Unlike the water clouds of Earth or the ammonia clouds of Jupiter, clouds on brown dwarfs are composed of hot grains of sand, liquid drops of iron, and other exotic compounds,” said Mark Marley, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and co-author of the paper. “So this large atmospheric disturbance found by Spitzer and Hubble gives a new meaning to the concept of extreme weather.”

While it might seem strange to think about weather on a star, remember that brown dwarfs are much more gas planet-like than “real” stars. Although the temperatures of 1,100–1,600 ºF (600–700 ºC) found on 2M2228 might sound searingly hot, it’s downright chilly compared to even regular stars like our Sun, which has an average temperature of nearly 10,000 ºF (5,600 ºC). Different materials gather at varying layers of its atmosphere, depending on temperature and pressure, and can be penetrated by different wavelengths of infrared light — just like gas giant planets.

“What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter,” said Adam Showman, a theorist at the University of Arizona involved in the research. “These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf’s weather systems stack up vertically. The data suggest regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is cloudy and rich in silicate vapor deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes — and vice versa.”

The team’s results were presented today, January 8, during the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, CA.

Read more on the Spitzer site, and find the team’s paper in PDF form here.

Inset image: the anatomy of a brown dwarf’s atmosphere (NASA/JPL).

The Secret Origin Story of Brown Dwarfs

Artist's impression of a Y-dwarf, the coldest known type of brown dwarf star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Sometimes called failed stars, brown dwarfs straddle the line between star and planet. Too massive to be “just” a planet, but lacking enough material to start fusion and become a full-fledged star, brown dwarfs are sort of the middle child of cosmic objects. Only first detected in the 1990s, their origins have been a mystery for astronomers. But a researchers from Canada and Austria now think they have an answer for the question: where do brown dwarfs come from?

If there’s enough mass in a cloud of cosmic material to start falling in upon itself, gradually spinning and collapsing under its own gravity to compress and form a star, why are there brown dwarfs? They’re not merely oversized planets — they aren’t in orbit around a star. They’re not stars that “cooled off” — those are white dwarfs (and are something else entirely.) The material that makes up a brown dwarf probably shouldn’t have even had enough mass and angular momentum to start the whole process off to begin with, yet they’re out there… and, as astronomers are finding out now that they know how to look for them, there’s quite a lot.

So how did they form?

According to research by Shantanu Basu of the University of Western Ontario and  Eduard I. Vorobyov from the University of Vienna in Austria and Russia’s Southern Federal University, brown dwarfs may have been flung out of other protostellar disks as they were forming, taking clumps of material with them to complete their development.

Basu and Vorobyov modeled the dynamics of protostellar disks, the clouds of gas and dust that form “real” stars. (Our own solar system formed from one such disk nearly five billion years ago.) What they found was that given enough angular momentum — that is, spin — the disk could easily eject larger clumps of material while still having enough left over to eventually form a star.

Model of how a clump of low-mass material gets ejected from a disk (S. Basu/E. Vorobyev)

The ejected clumps would then continue condensing into a massive object, but never quite enough to begin hydrogen fusion. Rather than stars, they become brown dwarfs — still radiating heat but nothing like a true star. (And they’re not really brown, by the way… they’re probably more of a dull red.)

In fact a single protostellar disk could eject more than one clump during its development, Basu and Vorobyov found, leading to the creation of multiple brown dwarfs.

If this scenario is indeed the way brown dwarfs form, it stands to reason that the Universe may be full of them. Since they are not very luminous and difficult to detect at long distances, the researchers suggest that brown dwarfs may be part of the answer to the dark matter mystery.

“There could be significant mass in the universe that is locked up in brown dwarfs and contribute at least part of the budget for the universe’s missing dark matter,” Basu said. “And the common idea that the first stars in the early universe were only of very high mass may also need revision.”

Based on this hypothesis, with the potential number of brown dwarfs that could be in our galaxy alone we may find that these “failed stars” are actually quite successful after all.

The team’s research paper was accepted on March 1 into The Astrophysical Journal.

Read more on the University of Western Ontario’s news release here.

Failed Star Is One Cool Companion

Artist's impression of a brown-dwarf object (left foreground) orbiting a distant white dwarf --the collapsed-core remnant of a dying star.


Astronomers have located a planet-like star that’s barely warmer than a balmy summer day on Earth… it’s literally the coldest object ever directly imaged outside of our solar system!

WD 0806-661 B is a brown “Y dwarf” star that’s a member of a binary pair. Its companion is a much hotter white dwarf, the remains of a Sun-like star that has shed its outer layers. The pair is located about 63 light-years away, which is pretty close to us as stars go. The stars were identified by a team led by Penn State Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Kevin Luhman using images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Two infrared images taken in 2004 and 2009 were overlaid on top of each other and show the stars moving in tandem, indicating a shared orbit.

These two infrared images were taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2004 and 2009. They show a faint object moving through space together with a white dwarf. Credit: Kevin Luhman, Penn State University, October 2011. (Click to play.)

Of course, locating the stars wasn’t quite as easy as that. To find this stellar duo Luhman and his team searched through over six hundred images of stars located near our solar system taken years apart, looking for any shifting position as a pair.

The use of infrared imaging allowed the team to locate a dim brown dwarf star like WD 0806-661 B, which emits little visible light but shines brightly in infrared. (Even though brown dwarfs are extremely cool for stars they are still much warmer than the surrounding space. And, for the record, brown dwarfs are not actually brown.) Measurements estimate the temperature of WD 0806-661 B to be in the range of about 80 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (26 to 54 degrees C, or 300 – 345 K)… literally body temperature!

“Essentially, what we have found is a very small star with an atmospheric temperature about cool as the Earth’s.”

– Kevin Luhman, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Penn State

Six to nine times the mass of Jupiter, WD 0806-661 B is more like a planet than a star. It never accumulated enough mass to ignite thermonuclear reactions and thus more resembles a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn. But its origins are most likely star-like, as its distance from its white dwarf companion – about 2,500 astronomical units – indicates that it developed on its own rather than forming from the other star’s disc.

There is a small chance, though, that it did form as a planet and gradually migrated out to its current distance. More research will help determine whether this may have been the case.

Brown dwarfs, first discovered in 1995, are valuable research targets because they are the next best thing to studying cool atmospheres on planets outside our solar system. Scientists keep trying to locate new record-holders for the coldest brown dwarfs, and with the discovery of WD 0806-661 B Luhman’s team has done just that!

A paper covering the team’s findings will be published in The Astrophysical Journal. Other authors of the paper include Ivo Labbé, Andrew J. Monson and Eric Persson of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Pasadena, Calif.; Didier Saumon of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; Mark S. Marley of the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; and John J. Bochanski also of The Pennsylvania State University.

Read more on the Penn State science site here.


T-Dwarf Stars Finally Reveal Their Mysterious Secrets

Eclipsing Binaries
Artists impression of a binary star system (courtesy NASA)


Astronomers have recently discovered an exotic star system which has shed some light on the mass and age of one of the systems rare stellar components. Using data from World’s largest optical telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, the team has had a new insight into the properties of the unusual T-dwarf stars. Its believed there are around 200 of these stars in our Galaxy but this is the first one to be discovered as part of a binary star system which has given astronomers an extra special insight into their properties.

The system, that has been dubbed the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for T-dwarf stars, was studied by a team led by Dr Avril Day-Jones of the Universidad de Chile and included Dr David Pinfield of the University of Hertfordshire and other astronomers from the University of Montreal. They first identified the dwarf star, which has a temperature of around 1000 degrees compared to our Sun at 5500 degrees, in the UKIRT Infra-red Deep Sky Survey while searching for the coolest objects in the Galaxy. They found to their surprise, that the T-dwarf star was joined by a companion blue star, later revealed to be a cool white dwarf. The pair have now been given the ‘memorable‘ name of 1459+0857 A and B.

The binary system is the first of its type to be discovered as, whilst both types of stars have been identified individually, they have never been found gravitationally bound to one another. The two stars are about 0.25 light years apart (compared to our nearest star at just over 4 light years away) but despite the distance and the weak gravitational interaction between the stars, they remain in orbit and will do so until the two stars slowly fizzle out to a dark and cool death.

The T-dwarf stars are an exotic breed which lie on the border between a star and a planet, much like our own Solar System giant, the planet Jupiter. They are not massive enough for nuclear reactions to take place in the core so from their birth, they simply cool and fade. The presence of methane too is a pointer to their cool nature as it gets destroyed at higher temperatures and so is not found in fully fledged stars. The companion star, the white dwarf, is a star at the end of its life. When average stars like the Sun die, their outer layers will blow off into space, leaving behind a planetary nebula and a cooling, dying stellar core. With the new binary system, the white dwarf star lost a significant amount of matter and so its gravitational pull weakened, slowly increasing the distance between the two companions. The planetary nebula has long since dissipated and from looking at the white dwarf, we can tell that this weak, fragile system has existed for several billions of year.

The discovery of this binary system has allowed the team to test the physics of cool stellar atmospheres that exist on these strange, failed stars and to measure its mass and age, providing an opportunity for astronomers to study other low mass objects. “The discovery is an important stepping stone to improve astronomers ability to measure the properities of low-mass star like objects (brown dwarfs). ” Dr Pinfield told Universe Today. “Only be accurately measuring these properties will we be able to understand how these objects form and evolve over time. Brown dwarfs are just as numerous as stars in the Milky Way, but their nature is not yet well understood. As such, this new discovery is helping astronomers interpret an important but mysterious population of objects that are quite common in our Galactic backyard.”

Mark Thompson is a writer and the astronomy presenter on the BBC One Show. See his website, The People’s Astronomer, and you can follow him on Twitter, @PeoplesAstro