In some ways, brown dwarfs are nature’s stellar oddballs. A lot of stars exhibit strange behaviour at different times in their evolution. But brown dwarfs aren’t even certain that they’re stars at all.
But that doesn’t mean astronomers don’t want to study and understand them.
In the hunt for exoplanets, some rather strange discoveries have been made. Beyond our Solar System, astronomers have spotted gas giants and terrestrial planets that appear to be many orders of magnitude larger than what we are used to (aka. “Super-Jupiters” and “Super-Earths”). And in some cases, it has not been entirely clear what our instruments have been detecting.
For instance, in some cases, astronomers have not been sure if an exoplanet candidate was a super-Jupiter or a brown dwarf. Not only do these substellar-mass stars fall into the same temperature range as massive gas giants, they also share many of the same physical properties. Such was the conundrum addressed by an international team of scientists who recently conduced a study of the object known as CFBDSIR 2149-0403.
The existence of this object was then confirmed using data by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), and was believed at the time to be part of a group of stars known as the AB Doradus Moving Group (30 stars that are moving through space). The data collected on this object placed its mass at between 4 and 7 Jupiter masses, its age at 20 to 200 million years, and its surface temperature at about 650-750 K.
This was the first time that such an object had constraints placed upon its mass and age using spectral data. However, questions remained about its true nature – whether it was a low mass, high-metallicity brown dwarf or a isolated planetary mass. For the sake of their study, Delorme and the international team conducted a multi-wavelength, multi-instrument observational characterization of CFBDSIR 2149-0403.
“The X-Shooter data enabled a detailed study of the physical properties of this object. However, all the data presented in the paper is really necessary for the study, especially the follow-up to obtain the parallax of the object, as well as the Spitzer photometry. Together, they enable us to get the bolometric flux of the object, and hence constraints that are almost independent from atmosphere model assumptions.”
From the combined data, they were able to characterize the absolute flux of the CFBDSIR 2149-0403, obtain readings on its spectrum, and even determine the radial velocity of the object. They were therefore able to determine that it not likely a member of a moving population of stars, as was previously expected.
“We now reject our initial hypothesis that CFBDSIR 2149-0403 would be a member of the AB Doradus moving group,” said Delorme. “This removes the most robust age constraint we had. Though determining that certainly improved our knowledge of the object it also made it more difficult to study, by adding age as a free parameter.”
As for what it is, they narrowed that down to one of two possibilities. Basically, it could be a planetary-mass object with a mass of between 2 and 13 Jupiters that is less than 500 million years in age, or a high metallicity brown dwarf that is between 2 and 40 Jupiter masses and two to three billion years in age. Ultimately, they acknowledge that this uncertainty is due to the fact that our theoretical understanding of cool, low-gravity, and metallicity-enhanced bodies is not robust enough yet.
Much of this has to do with the fact that brown dwarfs and super gas giants have common physical parameters that produce very similar effects in the spectra of their atmospheres. But as astronomers gain more of an understanding of planetary formation, which is made possible by the discovery of so many extra-solar planetary systems, we might just find where the line between the smallest of stars and the largest of gas giants is drawn.
Brown dwarfs – those not-quite-a-planet and not-quite-a-star objects – are intriguing oddities that are too low in mass to burn hydrogen, but are more massive than planets. They only emit a faint amount of light, so they are hard to detect, making scientists unsure of how many of them might be out there in our galaxy.
But astronomers have been keeping an eye one particular brown dwarf known called WISE 0855. Just 7.2 light-years from Earth, it is the coldest known object outside of our Solar System and is just barely visible at infrared wavelengths. But with some crafty spectroscopic observing techniques, astronomers have now determined this object has some exciting characteristics: its atmosphere is full of clouds of water vapor. This is the first time water clouds have been detected outside of our Solar System.
“It’s five times fainter than any other object detected with ground-based spectroscopy at this wavelength,” said Andrew Skemer, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and the first author on a paper on WISE 0855 published in Astrophysical Journal Letters (paper is available on arXiv here). “Now that we have a spectrum, we can really start thinking about what’s going on in this object. Our spectrum shows that WISE 0855 is dominated by water vapor and clouds, with an overall appearance that is strikingly similar to Jupiter.”
This brown dwarf’s full name is WISE J085510.83-071442.5, but we’re among friends, so it’s W0855 for short. It has about five times the mass of Jupiter and is the coldest brown dwarf ever detected, with an average temperature of about 250 degrees Kelvin, or minus 10 degrees F, minus 20 C. That makes it nearly as cold as Jupiter, which is 130 degrees Kelvin.
“WISE 0855 is our first opportunity to study an extrasolar planetary-mass object that is nearly as cold as our own gas giants,” Skemer said.
Skemer and his team used the Gemini-North telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph to observe WISE 0855 over 13 nights for a total of about 14 hours. Skemer was part of a team that studied this object in 2014 found tentative indications of water clouds based on very limited photometric data. Skemer said obtaining a spectrum (which separates the light from an object into its component wavelengths) was the only way to detect this object’s molecular composition.
A video about the 2014 discovery and study of WISE 0855:
WISE 0855 is too faint for conventional spectroscopy at optical or near-infrared wavelengths, but the team took up a challenge and looked at the thermal emissions from the object at wavelengths in a narrow window around 5 microns.
“I think everyone on the research team really believed that we were dreaming to think we could obtain a spectrum of this brown dwarf because its thermal glow is so feeble,” said Skemer. WISE 0855, is so cool and faint that many astronomers thought it would be years before a spectrum could be obtained. “I thought we’d have to wait until the James Webb Space Telescope was operating to do this,” Skemer said.
This spectroscopic view provided a glimpse into the environment of WISE 0855’s atmosphere. With the data in hand, the researchers then developed atmospheric models of the equilibrium chemistry for a brown dwarf at 250 degrees Kelvin and calculated the resulting spectra under different assumptions, including cloudy and cloud-free models. The models predicted a spectrum dominated by features resulting from water vapor, and the cloudy model yielded the best fit to the features in the spectrum of WISE 0855.
While the spectra of this object are strikingly similar to Jupiter, WISE 0855 appears to have a less turbulent atmosphere.
“The spectrum allows us to investigate dynamical and chemical properties that have long been studied in Jupiter’s atmosphere, but this time on an extrasolar world,” Skemer said.
The scientists say WISE 0855 looks more similar to Jupiter than any exoplanet yet discovered, which is especially intriguing since the Juno mission has just begun its exploration at the giant world. Jupiter, along with the other gas planets in our Solar System, all have clouds and storms, although Jupiter’s clouds are mainly made of ammonia with lower level clouds perhaps containing water. One of Juno’s goals is to determine the global water abundance at Jupiter.
Our stellar neighborhood just got a little busier … and a little colder.
A brown dwarf that’s as frosty as the Earth’s North Pole has been discovered lurking incredibly close to our Solar System. Astronomer Keven Luhman from Pennsylvania State University used NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Spitzer Space Telescope to pinpoint the object’s temperature and distance. This is the coldest brown dwarf found so far, and it’s a mere 7.2 light-years away, making it the seventh closest star-like object to the Sun.
“It is very exciting to discover a new neighbor of our Solar System that is so close,” said Luhman in a press release.
Brown dwarfs emerge when clouds of gas and dust collapse. But unlike stars, they never grow dense enough or burn hot enough to ignite nuclear fusion in their cores. They live their lives less massive than stars, but more massive than gas giants. So they burn hot at first, then cool over time. And this newly discovered brown dwarf is as cold as ice. Literally.
WISE surveyed the entire sky twice in its short 14-month lifetime, looking at cooler objects, which radiate in infrared light (but often remain invisible in visible light). It saw cold asteroids, dust clouds, proto-planetary disks, distant galaxies and hundreds of brown dwarfs.
But one of these objects — dubbed WISE J085510.83-071442.5 — was moving rapidly, suggesting it was extremely close to the Solar System. All stars orbit around the Milky Way, with apparent motions seen on the timescale of hundreds of years. Stars close to the Sun, however, can be seen to make the slightest of movements on the timescale of just a few years. This object appeared to move in just a few months.
After first spotting this wacky object in the WISE data, Luhman analyzed additional images taken with the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Gemini South Pole Telescope in Chile. The combined detections taken from different positions around the Sun enabled the measurement of the objects parallax — the apparent position of the object against a background set of stars as seen along multiple lines of sight — allowing Luhman to determine the objects distance.
Spitzer’s additional observations helped pin down the objects chilly temperature, which can be determined based on how much light it gives off in different colors. Like a flame, the hottest part is blue, while the coldest part is red. Luhman found the brown dwarfs temperature to be between –54° and 9° Fahrenheit (–48° to –13° Celsius). Previous record-holders for the coldest brown dwarfs were about room temperature.
“It is remarkable that even after many decades of studying the sky, we still do not have a complete inventory of the Sun’s nearest neighbors,” said Michael Werner from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This exciting new result demonstrates the power of exploring the universe using new tools, such as the infrared eyes of WISE and Spitzer.”
With a stretch of the imagination and advanced technology, it’s possible that other cooler objects, be them brown dwarfs of even rogue exoplanets, are yet closer to the Sun.
The paper will be published in the Astrophysics Journal and is available for download here.
When astronomers detect new exoplanets they typically do so using one of two techniques. First, there’s the famous transit technique, which looks for slight dips in light as a planet passes in front of its host star, and second is the radial velocity technique, which senses the motion of a star due to the gravitational pull of its planet.
But then there is gravitational microlensing, the chance magnification of the light from a distant star by the mass of a foreground star and its planets due to the distortion in the fabric of spacetime. While this technique sounds almost improbable, it is so accurate that every detection skips nominating planets as candidates and immediately verifies them as bona-fide worlds.
But without follow-up observations, the microlensing technique struggles with characterizing the incredibly faint host star. Now, a team of international astronomers led by PhD candidate Jennifer Yee from Ohio State University has detected the first microlensing signature, lovingly called MOA-2013-BLG-220Lb, that looks like a confirmed planet orbiting a candidate brown dwarf — an object so faint because it isn’t massive enough to kick-off nuclear fusion in its core.
Matter — no matter how great or small — curves the fabric of spacetime. It can ultimately acts like a lens by curving the background light around it and therefore magnifying the background source. In microlensing, the intervening matter is simply a faint star or perhaps a planetary system.
“As the ‘lens system’ passes in front of a distant, background star, the magnification of that background star changes as a function of time,” Yee told Universe Today. “By measuring the changing magnification of the background star, we can learn about the lensing star and perhaps whether or not it has a planet.”
In a planetary system, the light from the background star will be magnified when the foreground star passes in front of it. If there is a cirlcing planet, there will be an additional cusp in brightness (to a lesser extent but still a tell-tale detection nonetheless).
At the moment the planetary system transits in front of the background star (and for many years after) we can’t separate the two objects. While the light of the background star may be greatly magnified, its image is distorted because its light merges with the planetary system.
So the microlensing signature cannot tell astronomers anything about the lens system’s star. “It’s out of the ordinary,” Andrew Gould, Yee’s PhD advisor and coauthor on the paper, told Universe Today. “In other techniques people have definitely detected a star and they’re struggling to detect the planet. But microlensing is just the opposite. We detect the planet very clearly, but we can’t detect the host star.”
However, the microlensing signature does give away the lens system’s proper motion — the apparent change in distance over time — as it passes in front of the background star. MOA-2013-BLG-220Lb’s proper motion is extremely high, clocking in at 12.5 milliarcseconds (a distance on the sky that is 2400 times smaller than the size of the full moon) per year. This is roughly three times higher than average.
A high proper motion may be caused by an object that is very close by and is moving slowly or a very distant object moving rapidly. As most stars tend not to move at high speeds, the team assumes the object is relatively close, placing it at a distance of 6,000 light-years.
With a distance fixed, the team is also able to assume a mass for the object. It weighs in below the hydrogen-burning limit and is therefore considered the best brown dwarf candidate microlensing has detected.
“The double-edged sword of microlensing is that no light from the lens star is required,” Yee told Universe Today. “On the one hand, microlensing can find planets around dark or faint objects like brown dwarfs. The flip side is that it’s very difficult to characterize the lens star if its light is not detected.”
Astronomers will have to wait until 2021 to take a second look at the lens system. This time frame is how long we expect it to take before the candidate brown dwarf separates appreciably on the sky from the background star. Once it has done so astronomers will be able to verify whether or not the candidate is truly a brown dwarf.
A recent find announced by astronomers may go a long ways towards understanding a crucial “missing link” between planets and stars.
The team, led by Friemann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame’s Justin R. Crepp, recently released an image of a brown dwarf companion to a star 98 light years or 30 parsecs distant. This discovery marks the first time that a T-dwarf orbiting a Sun-like star with known radial velocity acceleration measurement has been directly imaged.
Located in the constellation Eridanus, the object weighs in at about 52 Jupiter masses, and orbits a 0.95 Sol mass star 51 Astronomical Units (AUs) distant once every 320-1900 years. Note that this wide discrepancy stems from the fact that even though we’ve been following the object for some 17 years since 1996, we’ve yet to ascertain whether we’ve caught it near apastron or periastron yet: we just haven’t been watching it long enough.
The T-dwarf, known as HD 19467 B, may become a benchmark in the study of sub-stellar mass objects that span the often murky bridge between true stars shining via nuclear fusion and ordinary high mass planets.
Brown dwarfs are classified as spectral classes M, L, T, and Y and are generally quoted as having a mass of between 13 to 80 Jupiters. Brown dwarfs utilize a portion of the proton-proton chain fusion reaction to create energy, known as deuterium burning. Low mass red dwarf stars have a mass range of 80 to 628 Jupiters or 0.75% to 60% the mass of our Sun. The Sun has just over 1,000 times Jupiter’s mass.
Researchers used data from the TaRgeting bENchmark-objects with Doppler Spectroscopy (TRENDS) high-contrast imaging survey, and backed it up with more precise measurements courtesy of the Keck observatory’s High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer or HIRES instrument.
TRENDS uses adaptive optics, which relies on precise flexing the telescope mirror several thousands of times a second to compensate for the blurring effects of the atmosphere. Brown dwarfs shine mainly in the infrared, and objects such as HD 19467 B are hard to discern due to their close proximity to their host star. In this particular instance, for example, HD 19467 B was over 10,000 times fainter than its primary star, and located only a little over an arc second away.
“This object is old and cold and will ultimately garner much attention as one of the most well-studied and scrutinized brown dwarfs detected to date,” Crepp said in a recent Keck observatory press release. “With continued follow-up observations, we can use it as a laboratory to test theoretical atmospheric models. Eventually we want to directly image and acquire the spectrum of Earth-like planets. Then, from the spectrum, we should be able to tell what the planet is made of, what its mass is, radius, age, etc… basically all of its relevant properties.
Discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in a star’s habitable zone is currently the “holy grail” of exoplanet science. Direct observation also allows us to pin down those key factors, as well as obtain a spectrum of an exoplanet, where detection techniques such as radial velocity analysis only allow us to peg an upper mass limit on the unseen companion object.
This also means that several exoplanet candidates in the current tally of 1074 known worlds beyond our solar system also push into the lower end of the mass limit for substellar objects, and may in fact be low mass brown dwarfs as well.
Another key player in the discovery was the Near-Infrared Camera (second generation) or NIRC2. This camera works in concert with the adaptive optics system on the Keck II telescope to achieve images in the near infrared with a better resolution than Hubble at optical wavelengths, perfect for brown dwarf hunting. NIRC2 is most well known for its analysis of stellar regions near the supermassive black hole at the core of our galaxy, and has obtained some outstanding images of objects in our solar system as well.
What is the significance of the find? Free floating “rogue” brown dwarfs have been directly imaged before, such as the pair named WISE J104915.57-531906 which are 6.5 light years distant and were spotted last year. A lone 6.5 Jupiter mass exoplanet PSO J318.5-22 was also found last year by the PanSTARRS survey searching for brown dwarfs.
“This is the first directly imaged T-dwarf (very cold brown dwarf) for which we have dynamical information independent of its brightness and spectrum,” team lead researcher Justin Crepp told Universe Today.
Analysis of brown dwarfs is significant to exoplanet science as well.
“They serve as an essential link between our understanding of stars and planets,” Mr. Crepp said. “The colder, the better.”
And just as there has been a controversy over the past decade concerning “planethood” at the low end of the mass scale, we could easily see the debate applied to the higher end range, as objects are discovered that blur the line… perhaps, by the 23rd century, we’ll finally have a Star Trek-esque classifications scheme in place so that we can make statements such as “Captain, we’ve entered orbit around an M-class planet…”
Something that’s always been fascinating in terms of red and brown dwarf stars is also the possibility that a solitary brown dwarf closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri could have thus far escaped detection. And no, Nibiru conspiracy theorists need not apply. Mr. Crepp notes that while possible, such an object is unlikely to have escaped detection by infrared surveys such as WISE. But what a discovery that’d be!
This image shows the brown dwarf ISO-Oph 102, or Rho-Oph 102, in the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region. Its position is marked by the crosshairs. This visible-light view was created from images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin
Brown dwarfs inhabit a kind of fuzzy line between stars and planets: their mass is seemingly too small for them to be full-fledged stars and yet they are too large to be planets. These dim stars were only discovered in 1995 but current estimates say that brown dwarfs could be as numerous as normal stars in our galaxy. Now, astronomers have found a brown dwarf that has a dusty disc encircling it, just like the discs encircling regular, young stars. It contains millimeter-sized solid grains, and around other newborn stars, these discs of cosmic dust are where planets form. Astronomers say this surprising find challenges theories of how rocky, Earth-scale planets form, and suggests that rocky planets may be even more common in the Universe than expected.
Rocky planets are thought to form through the random collision and sticking together of what are initially microscopic particles in the disc of material around a star. These tiny grains are similar to very fine soot or sand. However, in the outer regions around a brown dwarf, astronomers expected that grains could not grow because the discs were too sparse, and particles would be moving too fast to stick together after colliding. Also, prevailing theories say that any grains that manage to form should move quickly towards the central brown dwarf, disappearing from the outer parts of the disc where they could be detected.
“We were completely surprised to find millimeter-sized grains in this thin little disc,” said Luca Ricci of the California Institute of Technology, USA, who led a team of astronomers based in the United States, Europe and Chile. “Solid grains of that size shouldn’t be able to form in the cold outer regions of a disc around a brown dwarf, but it appears that they do. We can’t be sure if a whole rocky planet could develop there, or already has, but we’re seeing the first steps, so we’re going to have to change our assumptions about conditions required for solids to grow,” he said.
Artist’s impression of the disc of dust and gas around a brown dwarf. Credit: ESO
Ricci and his team used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) for their observations. Even though the telescope is not completely finished yet, ALMA’s high resolution allowed the team to pinpoint carbon monoxide gas around the brown dwarf — the first time that cold molecular gas has been detected in such a disc. This discovery, along with the millimeter-size grains, suggest that the disc is much more similar to the ones around young stars than previously expected.
ALMA, located in the high-altitude Chilean desert is a collection of high precision, dish-shaped antennas that work together as one large telescope to observe the Universe in millimeter-wavelengths, enabling observations of extreme detail and sensitivity. Construction of ALMA is scheduled to finish in 2013, but astronomers began observing with a partial array of ALMA dishes in 2011.
The astronomers pointed ALMA at the young brown dwarf ISO-Oph 102, also known as Rho-Oph 102, in the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The brown dwarf has about 60 times the mass of Jupiter but only 0.06 times that of the Sun, and so has too little mass to ignite the thermonuclear reactions by which ordinary stars shine. However, it emits heat released by its slow gravitational contraction and shines dimly with a reddish color.
The astronomers were able to determine the grains in the disc are a millimeter or more in size.
“ALMA is a powerful new tool for solving mysteries of planetary system formation,” said Leonardo Testi from ESO, a member of the research team. “Trying this with previous generation telescopes would have needed almost a month of observing — impossibly long in practice. But, using just a quarter of ALMA’s final complement of antennas, we were able to do it in less than one hour!” he said.
When ALMA is completed, the team hopes to turn the telescope again towards Rho-Oph 102 and other similar objects.
“We will soon be able to not only detect the presence of small particles in discs,” said Ricci, “but to map how they are spread across the circumstellar disc and how they interact with the gas that we’ve also detected in the disc. This will help us better understand how planets come to be.”
[/caption]What would you say if I told you there are stars with a temperature close to that of a human body? Before you have me committed, there really is such a thing. These “cool” stars belong to the brown dwarf family and are termed Y dwarfs. For over ten years astronomers have been hunting for these dark little beasties with no success. Now infrared data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has turned up six of them – and they’re less than 40 light years away!
“WISE scanned the entire sky for these and other objects, and was able to spot their feeble light with its highly sensitive infrared vision,” said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “They are 5,000 times brighter at the longer infrared wavelengths WISE observed from space than those observable from the ground.”
Often referred to as “failed stars”, the Y-class suns are simply too low mass to ignite the fusion process which makes other stars shine in visible light. As they age, they fade away – their only signature is what can be spotted in infrared. The brown dwarfs are of great interest to astronomers because we can gain a better understanding as to stellar natures and how planetary atmospheres form and evolve. Because they are alone in space, it’s much easier to study these Jupiter-like suns… without being blinded by a parent star.
“Brown dwarfs are like planets in some ways, but they are in isolation,” said astronomer Daniel Stern, co-author of the Spitzer paper at JPL. “This makes them exciting for astronomers — they are the perfect laboratories to study bodies with planetary masses.”
The WISE mission has been extremely productive – turning up more than 100 brown dwarf candidates. Scientists are hopeful that even more will emerge as huge amounts of data are processed from the most advanced survey of the sky at infrared wavelengths to date. Just imagine how much information was gathered from January 2010 to February 2011 as the telescope scanned the entire sky about 1.5 times! One of the Y dwarfs, called WISE 1828+2650, is the record holder for the coldest brown dwarf, with an estimated atmospheric temperature cooler than room temperature, or less than about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
“The brown dwarfs we were turning up before this discovery were more like the temperature of your oven,” said Davy Kirkpatrick, a WISE science team member at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “With the discovery of Y dwarfs, we’ve moved out of the kitchen and into the cooler parts of the house.”
Kirkpatrick is the lead author of a paper appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, describing the 100 confirmed brown dwarfs. Michael Cushing, a WISE team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is lead author of a paper describing the Y dwarfs in the Astrophysical Journal.
“Finding brown dwarfs near our Sun is like discovering there’s a hidden house on your block that you didn’t know about,” Cushing said. “It’s thrilling to me to know we’ve got neighbors out there yet to be discovered. With WISE, we may even find a brown dwarf closer to us than our closest known star.”
Given the nature of the Y-class stars, positively identifying these special brown dwarfs wasn’t an easy task. For that, the WISE team employed the aid of the Spitzer Space Telescope to refine the hunt. From there the team used the most powerful telescopes on Earth – NASA Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego; the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; and the Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile, and others – to look for signs of methane, water and even ammonia. For the very coldest of the new Y dwarfs, the team used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Their final answer came when changes in spectra indicated a low temperature atmosphere – and a Y-class signature.
“WISE is looking everywhere, so the coolest brown dwarfs are going to pop up all around us,” said Peter Eisenhardt, the WISE project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and lead author of a recent paper in the Astronomical Journal on the Spitzer discoveries. “We might even find a cool brown dwarf that is closer to us than Proxima Centauri, the closest known star.”
The definition of a “planet” is one that has seen a great deal of contention. The ad-hoc redefinition has caused much grief for lovers of the demoted Pluto. Yet little attention is paid to the other end of the planetary scale, namely, where the cutoff between a star and a planet lies. The general consensus is that an object capable of supporting deuterium (a form of hydrogen that has a neutron in the nucleus and can undergo fusion at lower temperatures) fusion, is a brown dwarf while, anything below that is a planet. This limit has been estimated to be around 13 Jupiter masses, but while this line in the sand may seem clear initially, a new paper explores the difficulty in pinning down this discriminating factor. For many years, brown dwarfs were mythical creatures. Their low temperatures, even while undergoing deuterium fusion, made them difficult to detect. While many candidates were proposed as brown dwarfs, all failed the discriminating test of having lithium present in their spectrum (which is destroyed by the temperatures of traditional hydrogen fusion). This changed in 1995 when the first object of suitable mass was discovered when the 670.8 nm lithium line was discovered in a star of suitable mass.
Since then, the number of identified brown dwarfs has increased significantly and astronomers have discovered that the lower mass range of purported brown dwarfs seems to overlap with that of massive planets. This includes objects such as CoRoT-3b, a brown dwarf with approximately 22 Jovian masses, which exists in the terminological limbo.
The paper, led by David Speigel of Princeton, investigated a wide range of initial conditions for objects near the deuterium burning limit. Among the variables included, the team considered the initial fraction of helium, deuterium, and “metals” (everything higher than helium on the periodic table). Their simulations revealed that just how much of the deuterium burned, and how fast, was highly dependent on the starting conditions. Objects starting with higher helium concentration required less mass to burn a given amount of deuterium. Similarly, the higher the initial deuterium fraction, the more readily it fused. The differences in required mass were not subtle either. They varied by as much as two Jovian masses, extending as low as a mere 11 times the mass of Jupiter, well below the generally accepted limit.
The authors suggest that because of the inherent confusion in the mass limits, that such a definition may not be the “most useful delineation between planets and brown dwarfs.” As such, they recommend astronomers take extra care in their classifications and realize that a new definition may be necessary. One possible definition could involve considerations of the formation history of objects in the questionable mass range; Objects that formed in disks, around other stars would be considered planets, where objects that formed from gravitational collapse independently of the object they orbit, would be considered brown dwarfs. In the mean time, objects such as CoRoT-3b, will continue to have their taxonomic categorization debated.
I feel a certain empathy for brown dwarfs. The first confirmed finding of one was only fifteen years ago and they remain frequently overlooked in most significant astronomical surveys. I mean OK, they can only (stifles laughter) burn deuterium but that’s something, isn’t it?
It has been suggested that a clever way of finding more brown dwarfs is in the radio spectrum. A brown dwarf with a strong magnetic field and a modicum of stellar wind should produce an electron cyclotron maser. Roughly speaking (something you can always depend on from this writer), electrons caught in a magnetic field are spun energetically in a tight circle, stimulating the emission of microwaves in a particular plane from the star’s polar regions. So you get a maser, essentially the microwave version of a laser, that would be visible on Earth – if we are in line of sight of it.
While the maser effect can probably be weakly generated by isolated brown dwarfs, it’s more likely we will detect one in binary association with a lessmass-challenged star that is capable of generating a more vigorous stellar wind to interact with the brown dwarf’s magnetic field.
This maser effect is also proposed to offer a clever way of finding exoplanets. An exoplanet could easily outshine its host star in the radio spectrum if its magnetic field is powerful enough.
So far, searches for confirmed radio emissions from brown dwarfs or orbiting bodies around other stars have been unsuccessful, but this may become achievable in the near future with the steadily growing resolution of the European LOw Frequency ARray (LOFAR), which will be the best such instrument around until the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is built – which won’t be seeing first light before at least 2017.
But even if we can’t see brown dwarfs and exoplanets in radio yet, we can start developing profiles of likely candidates. Christensen and others have derived a magnetic scaling relationship for small scale celestial objects, which delivers predictions that fit well with observations of solar system planets and low mass main sequence stars in the K and M spectral classes (remembering the spectral class mantra Old Backyard Astronomers Feel Good Knowing Mnemonics).
Using the Christensen model, it’s thought that brown dwarfs of about 70 Jupiter masses may have magnetic fields in the order of several kilo-Gauss in their first hundred million years of life, as they burn deuterium and spin fast. However, as they age, their magnetic field is likely to weaken as deuterium burning and spin rate declines.
Brown dwarfs with declining deuterium burning (due to age or smaller starting mass) may have magnetic fields similar to giant exoplanets, anywhere from 100 Gauss up to 1 kilo-Gauss. Mind you, that’s just for young exoplanets – the magnetic fields of exoplanets also evolve over time, such that their magnetic field strength may decrease by a factor of ten over 10 billion years.
In any case, Reiners and Christensen estimate that radio light from known exoplanets within 65 light years will emit at wavelengths that can make it through Earth’s ionosphere – so with the right ground-based equipment (i.e. a completed LOFAR or a SKA) we should be able to start spotting brown dwarfs and exoplanets aplenty.