WISE Discovers Some Really “Cool” Stars!

This artist's conception illustrates what a "Y dwarf" might look like. Y dwarfs are the coldest star-like bodies known. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

[/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.”

How cool is that?!

Original Story Source: JPL News Release.

The Other End of the Planetary Scale

A comparison of the size of Jupiter, a brown dwarf, a small star and the Sun (Gemini Observatory/Artwork by Jon Lomberg)


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.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Brown Dwarfs Are Magnetic Too

Brown dwarf TWA 5B compared to Jupiter and the Sun. Although brown dwarfs are similar in size to Jupiter, they are much more dense and massive - between 13 and 80 Jupiter masses. Credit: chandra.harvard.edu


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 less mass-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.

Geometrically-challenged aliens struggling to make a crop circle? Nope, it's a component of the LOFAR low frequency radio telescope array. Credit: www.lofar.org

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.

Further reading: Reiners, A. and Christensen, U.R. (2010) A magnetic field evolution scenario for brown dwarfs and giant planets.

Mystery Object Found Orbiting Brown Dwarf

This Hubble Space Telescope image of young brown dwarf 2M J044144 show it has a companion object at the 8 o'clock position that is estimated to be 5-10 times the mass of Jupiter.Credit: NASA, ESA, and K. Todorov and K. Luhman (Penn State University)


Big planet or companion brown dwarf? Using the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory, astronomers have discovered an unusual object orbiting a brown dwarf, and its discovery could fuel additional debate about what exactly constitutes a planet. The object circles a nearby brown dwarf in the Taurus star-forming region with an orbit approximately 3.6 billion kilometers (2.25 billion miles) out, about the same as Saturn from our sun. The astronomers say it is the right size for a planet, but they believe the object formed in less than 1 million years — the approximate age of the brown dwarf — and much faster than the predicted time it takes to build planets according to conventional theories.

Kamen Todorov of Penn State University and his team conducted a survey of 32 young brown dwarfs in the Taurus region.

The object orbits the brown dwarf 2M J044144 and is about 5-10 times the mass of Jupiter. Brown dwarfs are objects that typically are tens of times the mass of Jupiter and are too small to sustain nuclear fusion to shine as stars do.

Artist's conception of the binary system 2M J044144. Science Credit: NASA, ESA, and K. Todorov and K. Luman (Penn State University) Artwork Credit: Gemini Observatory, courtesy of L. Cook

While there has been a lot of discussion in the context of the Pluto debate over how small an object can be and still be called a planet, this new observation addresses the question at the other end of the size spectrum: How small can an object be and still be a brown dwarf rather than a planet? This new companion is within the range of masses observed for planets around stars, but again, the astronomers aren’t sure if it is a planet or a companion brown dwarf star.

The answer is strongly connected to the mechanism by which the companion most likely formed.

The Hubble new release offers these three possible scenarios for how the object may have formed:

Dust in a circumstellar disk slowly agglomerates to form a rocky planet 10 times larger than Earth, which then accumulates a large gaseous envelope; a lump of gas in the disk quickly collapses to form an object the size of a gas giant planet; or, rather than forming in a disk, a companion forms directly from the collapse of the vast cloud of gas and dust in the same manner as a star (or brown dwarf).

If the last scenario is correct, then this discovery demonstrates that planetary-mass bodies can be made through the same mechanism that builds stars. This is the likely solution because the companion is too young to have formed by the first scenario, which is very slow. The second mechanism occurs rapidly, but the disk around the central brown dwarf probably did not contain enough material to make an object with a mass of 5-10 Jupiter masses.

“The most interesting implication of this result is that it shows that the process that makes binary stars extends all the way down to planetary masses. So it appears that nature is able to make planetary-mass companions through two very different mechanisms,” said team member Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University.

If the mystery companion formed through cloud collapse and fragmentation, as stellar binary systems do, then it is not a planet by definition because planets build up inside disks.

The mass of the companion is estimated by comparing its brightness to the luminosities predicted by theoretical evolutionary models for objects at various masses for an age of 1 million years.

Further supporting evidence comes from the presence of a very nearby binary system that contains a small red star and a brown dwarf. Luhman thinks that all four objects may have formed in the same cloud collapse, making this in actuality a quadruple system.

“The configuration closely resembles quadruple star systems, suggesting that all of its components formed like stars,” he said.

The team’s research is being published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The team’s paper: Discovery of a Planetary-Mass Companion to a Brown Dwarf in Taurus

Source: HubbleSite

Dwarf Star

A comparison of the Sun in its yellow dwarf phase and red giant phase

A dwarf star is a star that is not a giant or supergiant … in other words, a dwarf star is a normal star! Of course, some dwarf stars are much smaller (less massive, have a smaller radius, etc) than normal (or main sequence, not really massive) stars … and these have names, like white dwarf, red dwarf, brown dwarf, and black dwarf. Our very own Sol (the Sun) is a dwarf star … a yellow dwarf.

Looking more closely at this rather confusing class of objects: a dwarf star has a mass of up to about 20 sols, and a luminosity (a.k.a. intrinsic brightness) of up to about 20,000 sols (‘sol’ is a neat unit; it can mean ‘the mass of the Sun’, or ‘the luminosity of the Sun’, or …!). So just about every star is a dwarf star! Why? Because most stars are on the main sequence (which means almost all have luminosities below 20,000 sols), and only a tiny handful of main sequence stars are more massive than 20 sols. In addition, once a star has burned through all its fuel, it becomes a white dwarf (and, one day, a black dwarf), all of which are dwarf stars by this definition.

The most interesting class of dwarf star is, perhaps, the black dwarf star; it’s hardly a star at all (it doesn’t burn any fuel, except, perhaps, deuterium, for a few million years or so).

So why do astronomers have this classification at all? Hitting the history books gives us a clue … back when spectroscopy was getting started, among astronomers – and well before there was any kind of astronomy except that in the optical (or visual) waveband; think the second half of the 19th century – a curious fact about stars was discovered: the spectra of stars with the same colors could still be very different (and when their distances were estimated, these spectral differences were found to track luminosity). So while dwarf stars overwhelmingly dominate, in terms of numbers, the giants (and sub-giants, and supergiants) pretty much rule in terms of what you can see with your unaided vision.

Neatly linking one kind of dwarf (the Sun, as a yellow dwarf) to another (white dwarf) is Universe Today’s The Sun as a White Dwarf. Other Universe Today articles on dwarf stars (not only white dwarfs!) include Astronomers Discover Youngest and Lowest Mass Dwarfs, Brown Dwarfs Form Like Stars, and Observing an Evaporating Extrasolar Planet.

Astronomy Cast’s episode Dwarf Stars has more on this topic.

Baby Brown Dwarfs Provide Clues to Solve Mystery

Why – and how — do brown dwarfs form? Since these cosmic misfits fall somewhere between planets and stars in terms of their temperature and mass, astronomers haven’t yet been able to determine how they form: are their beginnings like planets or stars? Now, the Spitzer Space Telescope has found what could be two of the youngest brown dwarfs. While astronomers are still looking to confirm the finding of these so-called “proto brown dwarfs” it has provided a preliminary answer of how these unusual stars form.

The baby brown dwarfs were found in Spitzer data collected in 2005. Astronomers had focused their search in the dark cloud Barnard 213, a region of the Taurus-Auriga complex well known to astronomers as a hunting ground for young objects.

“We decided to go several steps back in the process when (brown dwarfs) are really hidden,” said David Barrado of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, Spain, lead author of the paper, published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. “During this step they would have an (opaque) envelope, a cocoon, and they would be easier to identify due to their strong infrared excesses. We have used this property to identify them. This is where Spitzer plays an important role because Spitzer can have a look inside these clouds. Without it this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Barrado said the findings potentially solve the mystery about whether brown dwarfs form more like stars or planets. The team’s findings? Brown dwarfs form like low-mass stars.

Brown dwarfs are cooler and more lightweight than stars and more massive (and normally warmer) than planets. They are born of the same dense, dusty clouds that spawn stars and planets. But while they may share the same galactic nursery, brown dwarfs are often called “failed” stars because they lack the mass of their hotter, brighter stellar siblings. Without that mass, the gas at their core does not get hot enough to trigger the nuclear fusion that burns hydrogen — the main component of these molecular clouds — into helium. Unable to ignite as stars, brown dwarfs end up as cooler, less luminous objects that are more difficult to detect — a challenge that was overcome in this case by Spitzer’s heat-sensitive infrared vision.

This artist's rendering gives us a glimpse into a cosmic nursery as a star is born from the dark, swirling dust and gas of this cloud. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's rendering gives us a glimpse into a cosmic nursery as a star is born from the dark, swirling dust and gas of this cloud. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Young brown dwarfs also evolve rapidly, making it difficult to catch them when they are first born. The first brown dwarf was discovered in 1995 and, while hundreds have been found since, astronomers had not been able to unambiguously find them in their earliest stages of formation until now.

Spitzer’s longer-wavelength infrared camera penetrated the dusty natal cloud to observe STB213 J041757. The data, confirmed with near-infrared imaging from Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, revealed not one but two of what would potentially prove to be the faintest and coolest brown dwarfs ever observed.

The twins were observed from around the globe, and their properties were measured and analyzed using a host of powerful astronomical tools. One of the astronomers’ stops was the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii, which captured the presence of the envelope around the young objects. That information, coupled with what they had from Spitzer, enabled the astronomers to build a spectral energy distribution — a diagram that shows the amount of energy that is emitted by the objects in each wavelength.

From Hawaii, the astronomers made additional stops at observatories in Spain (Calar Alto Observatory), Chile (Very Large Telescopes) and New Mexico (Very Large Array). They also pulled decade-old data from the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre archives that allowed them to comparatively measure how the two objects were moving in the sky. After more than a year of observations, they drew their conclusions.

“We were able to estimate that these two objects are the faintest and coolest discovered so far,” Barrado said. This theory is bolstered because the change in brightness of the objects at various wavelengths matches that of other very young, low-mass stars.

While further study will confirm whether these two celestial objects are in fact proto brown dwarfs, they are the best candidates so far, Barrado said. He said the journey to their discovery, while difficult, was fun. “It is a story that has been unfolding piece by piece. Sometimes nature takes its time to give up its secrets.”

Lead image caption: This image shows two young brown dwarfs, objects that fall somewhere between planets and stars in terms of their temperature and mass. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Calar Alto Obsv./Caltech Sub. Obsv.

Source: JPL