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

Source of Mysterious ‘Fast’ Radio Signals Pinpointed, But What Is It?

For about 10 years, radio astronomers have been detecting mysterious milliseconds-long blasts of radio waves, called “fast radio bursts” (FRB).

While only 18 of these events have been detected so far, one FRB has been particularly intriguing as the signal has been sporadically repeating. First detected in November 2012, astronomers didn’t know if FRB 121102 originated from within the Milky Way galaxy or from across the Universe.

A concentrated search by multiple observatories around the world has now determined that the signals are coming from a dim dwarf galaxy about 2.5 billion light years from Earth. But astronomers are still uncertain about exactly what is creating these bursts.

“These radio flashes must have enormous amounts of energy to be visible from that distance,” said Shami Chatterjee from Cornell University, speaking at a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week. Chatterjee and his colleagues have papers published today in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The globally distributed dishes of the European VLBI Network are linked with each other and the 305-m William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Credit:?Danielle?Futselaar.

The patch of the sky where the signal originated is in the constellation Auriga, and Chatterjee said the patch of the sky is arc minutes in diameter. “In that patch are hundreds of sources. Lots of stars, lots of galaxies, lots of stuff,” he said, which made the search difficult.

The Arecibo radio telescope, the observatory that originally detected the event, has a resolution of three arc minutes or about one-tenth of the moon’s diameter, so that was not precise enough to identify the source. Astronomers used the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the European Very Large Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) network, to help narrow the origin. But, said co-author Casey Law from the University of California Berkeley, that also created a lot of data to sort through.

“It was like trying to find a needle in a terabyte haystack,” he said. “It took a lot of algorithmic work to find it.”

Finally on August 23, 2016, the burst made itself extremely apparent with nine extremely bright bursts.

“We had struggled to be able to observe the faintest bursts we could,” Law said, “but suddenly here were nine of the brightest ones ever detected. This FRB was generous to us.”

The team was not only able to pinpoint it to the distant dwarf galaxy, co-author Jason Hessels from ASTRON/University of Amsterdam said they were also able to determine the bursts didn’t come from the center of the galaxy, but came from slightly off-center in the galaxy. That might indicate it didn’t originate from a central black hole. Upcoming observations with the Hubble Space Telescope might be able to pinpoint it even further.

Gemini composite image of the field around FRB 121102 (indicated). The dwarf host galaxy was imaged, and spectroscopy performed, using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i. Data was obtained on October 24-25 and November 2, 2016. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC.

What makes this source burst repeatedly?

“We don’t know yet what caused it or the physical mechanism that makes such bright and fast pulses,” said said Sarah Burke-Spolaor, from West Virginia University. “The FRB could be outflow from an active galactic nuclei (AGN) or it might be more familiar, such as a distant supernova remnant, or a neutron star.”

Burke-Spolaor added that they don’t know yet if all FRBs are created equal, as so far FRB 121102 is the only repeater. The team hopes there will be other examples detected.

“It may be a magnetar – a newborn neutron star with a huge magnetic field, inside a supernova remnant or a pulsar wind nebula – somehow producing these prodigious pulses,” said Chatterjee. “Or, it may be a combination of all these ideas – explaining why what we’re seeing may be somewhat rare.”

For additional reading:
Gemini Observatory
Nature News

VLA Shows Early Stages Of Planet Formation In Unprecedented Detail

The million-year-old star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. Image: Carrasco-Gonzalez et. al.; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

The currently accepted theory of planet formation goes like this: clouds of gas and dust are compressed or begin to draw together. When enough material clumps together, a star is formed and begins fusion. As the star, and its cloud of gas and dust rotate, other clumps of matter coagulate within the cloud, eventually forming planets. Voila, solar system.

There’s lots of evidence to support this, but getting a good look at the early stages of planetary formation has been difficult.

But now, an international team of astronomers using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) have captured the earliest image yet of the process of planetary formation. “We believe this clump of dust represents the earliest stage in the formation of protoplanets, and this is the first time we’ve seen that stage,” said Thomas Henning, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA).

This story actually started back in 2014, when astronomers studied the star HL Tau and its dusty disk with the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA.) That image, which showed gaps in HL Tau’s proto-planetary disk caused by proto-planets sweeping up dust in their orbits, was at the time the earliest image we had of planet formation. HL Tau is only about a million years old, so planet formation in HL Tau’s system was in its early days.

Now, astronomers have studied the same star, and its disk, with the VLA. The capabilities of the VLA allowed them do get an even better look at HL Tau and its disk, in particular the denser area closest to the star. What VLA revealed was a distinct clump of dust in the innermost region of the disk that contains between 3 to 8 times the mass of the Earth. That’s enough to form a few terrestrial planets of the type that inhabit our inner Solar System.

On the left is the ALMA image of HL Tau. On the right is the VLA image showing the clump of dust near the star. Image: Carrasco-Gonzalez et al,; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
On the left is the ALMA image of HL Tau. On the right is the VLA image showing the clump of dust near the star. Image: Carrasco-Gonzalez et al,; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

“This is an important discovery, because we have not yet been able to observe most stages in the process of planet formation,” said Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez from the Institute of Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics (IRyA) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Of course the star in question, HL Tau, is interesting as well. But the formation and evolution of stars is much more easily studied. It’s our theory of planet formation which needed some observational confirmation. “This is quite different from the case of star formation, where, in different objects, we have seen stars in different stages of their life cycle. With planets, we haven’t been so fortunate, so getting a look at this very early stage in planet formation is extremely valuable,” said Carrasco-Gonzalez.

Watch SETI-Seeking Radio Dishes Dance Across the Universe

Radio dishes always evoke wonder, as these giants search for invisible (to our eyes, anyway) radio signals from objects like distant quasars, pulsars, masers and more, including potential signals from extraterrestrials. This new timelapse from Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures was shot at several different radio astronomy facilities — the Very Large Array (VLA) Observatory in New Mexico, Owens Valley Observatory in Owens Valley California, and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. All three of these facilities have been or are still being partly used by the SETI (Search for the Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program.

Watch the dishes dance in their search across the Universe!

The huge meteorite streaking across the sky above Very Large Array (2:40) is from the Aquarids meteor shower. The large radio telescope at Green Bank is where scientists first attempted to “listen” to presence of extraterrestrials in the galaxy. The Very Large Array was featured in the movie CONTACT (1997) while Owens Observatory was featured in THE ARRIVAL (1996).

This video was created for, a crowdfunded educational project that explores the effects and dangers of urban light pollution in contrast with some of the most incredible Dark Sky Preserves in North America.

The music is by Tom Boddy, and titled “Thoughtful Reflections.”

Thanks to Gavin Heffernan for sharing this video.

Screenshot from the DishDance timelapse. Credit and copyright: Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan.
Screenshot from the DishDance timelapse. Credit and copyright: Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan.

SKYGLOW: DISHDANCE from Sunchaser Pictures on Vimeo.

If You Could See in Radio These Are the Crazy Shapes You’d See in the Sky

Even though it’s said that the average human eye can discern from seven to ten million different values and hues of colors, in reality our eyes are sensitive to only a very small section of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, corresponding to wavelengths in the range of 400 to 700 nanometers. Above and below those ranges lie enormously diverse segments of the EM spectrum, from minuscule yet powerful gamma rays to incredibly long, low-frequency radio waves.

Astronomers observe the Universe in all wavelengths because many objects and phenomena can only be detected in EM ranges other than visible light (which itself can easily be blocked by clouds of dense gas and dust.) But if we could see in radio waves the same way we do in visible light waves – that is with longer wavelengths being perceived as “red” and shorter wavelengths seen as “violet,” with all the blues, greens, and yellows in between – our world would look quite different… especially the night sky, which would be filled with fantastic shapes like those seen above!

View of the VLA in New Mexico. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.
View of the VLA in New Mexico. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.

Created from observations made at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the image above shows a cluster of over 500 colliding galaxies located 800 million light-years away called Abell 2256. An intriguing target of study across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, here Abell 2256 (A2256 for short) has had its radio emissions mapped to the corresponding colors our eyes can see.

Within an area about the same width as the full Moon a space battle between magical cosmic creatures seems to be taking place! (In reality A2256 spans about 4 million light-years.)

See a visible-light image of A2256 by amateur astronomer Rick Johnson here.

The VLA radio observations will help researchers determine what’s happening within A2256, where multiple groups of galaxy clusters are interacting.

“The image reveals details of the interactions between the two merging clusters and suggests that previously unexpected physical processes are at work in such encounters,” said Frazer Owen of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Radio image of the night sky. (Credit: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, generated by Glyn Haslam.)
Radio image of the night sky. (Credit: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, generated by Glyn Haslam.)

Learn more about NRAO and radio astronomy here, and you can get an idea of what our view of the Milky Way would look like in radio wavelengths on the Square Kilometer Array’s website.

Source: NRAO

Best Evidence Yet for a High-Energy Jet Emanating from the Milky Way’s Black Hole

Jets of high energy particles emanating from a black hole have been detected plenty of times before, but in other galaxies, that is — not from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Previous studies and other evidence suggested that perhaps there were jets – or ghosts of past jets – but many findings and studies often contradicted each other, and none were considered definitive.

Now, astronomers using Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope have found strong evidence Sgr A* is producing a jet of high-energy particles.

“For decades astronomers have looked for a jet associated with the Milky Way’s black hole. Our new observations make the strongest case yet for such a jet,” said Zhiyuan Li of Nanjing University in China, lead author of a study in The Astrophysical Journal.

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is about four million times more massive than our Sun and lies about 26,000 light-years from Earth.

While the common notion is that black holes inhale and ingest everything that comes their way, that’s not always true. Sometimes they reject small portions of incoming mass, pushing it away in the form of a powerful jet, and many times a pair of jets. These jets also feed the surroundings, releasing both mass and energy and likely play important roles in regulating the rate of formation of new stars.

Sgr A* is presently known to be consuming very little material, and so the jet is weak, making it difficult to detect. Astronomers don’t see another jet “shooting” in the opposite direction but that may be because of gas or dust blocking the line of sight from Earth or a lack of material to fuel the jet. Or there may be just a single jet.

“We were very eager to find a jet from Sgr A* because it tells us the direction of the black hole’s spin axis. This gives us important clues about the growth history of the black hole,” said Mark Morris of the University of California at Los Angeles, a co-author of the study.

The study shows the spin axis of Sgr A* is pointing in one direction, parallel to the rotation axis of the Milky Way, which indicates to astronomers that gas and dust have migrated steadily into Sgr A* over the past 10 billion years. If the Milky Way had collided with large galaxies in the recent past and their central black holes had merged with Sgr A*, the jet could point in any direction.

The jet appears to be running into gas near Sgr A*, producing X-rays detected by Chandra and radio emission observed by the VLA. The two key pieces of evidence for the jet are a straight line of X-ray emitting gas that points toward Sgr A* and a shock front — similar to a sonic boom — seen in radio data, where the jet appears to be striking the gas. Additionally, the energy signature, or spectrum, in X-rays of Sgr A* resembles that of jets coming from supermassive black holes in other galaxies.

The Chandra observations in this study were taken between September 1999 and March 2011, with a total exposure of about 17 days.

Source: Chandra

Your Weekend Movie: Beyond The Visible: The Story of the Very Large Array

While some of you will no doubt be heading to the theaters to see the new release of “Gravity,” for those that want to stay in for the weekend, here’s the perfect short film. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has released a new 24-minute film about the recently renovated Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. The film is narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster, star of the 1997 Warner Brothers film, “Contact,” which was filmed in part at the VLA.

“In ‘Contact,’ I played the role of an astronomer using the VLA,” Foster said. “In narrating this new film for the VLA Visitor Center, I have the privilege of introducing tomorrow’s scientists, technicians, and engineers to the amazing complexities of this great telescope, and to the wonders of the universe that it reveals.”

Beyond The Visible: The Story of the Very Large Array from NRAO Outreach on Vimeo.

From NRAO’s press release:

Titled “Beyond the Visible,” the film tells the behind-the-scenes story of the operation and scientific achievements of the VLA, which has been at the forefront of astrophysical research since its dedication in 1980. Spectacular ground and aerial footage of the iconic radio telescope is augmented by first-person interviews with staffers who keep the telescope working and scientists who use it to discover exciting new facts about the universe. The film also depicts many of the technical tasks needed to keep the array functioning at the forefront of science.

“Since the last film for the Visitor Center was produced in 2002, we’ve completed a massive technological upgrade that turned the VLA into a completely new and vastly more powerful tool for cutting-edge science,” said Dale Frail, NRAO’s Director for New Mexico Operations. “It was time to update the story we tell our visitors,” he added.

The film replaces an earlier video that ran at the VLA Visitor Center auditorium, which is visited by some 20,000 people annually. You can’t currently go to the Visitor Center to see the new film at the moment, however, because of the US federal government shutdown. So, watch it here. Hopefully the shutdown will be resolved soon so that people can resume their visits to the VLA.

Gigantic Plasma Jets Pour From the Heart of Hercules A

Combined Hubble (optical) and VLA (radio) images show enormous radio jets shooting out from the galaxy Hercules A

Talk about pouring your heart out! Astronomers using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and the recently-upgraded Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico have identified gigantic jets of plasma, subatomic particles and magnetic fields blasting out of the center of Hercules A, a massive galaxy 2 billion light-years away.

The image above is a combination of optical images from Hubble and radio data gathered by the multi-dish VLA. If our eyes could see in the high-energy spectrum of radio, this is what Hercules A — the otherwise ordinary-looking elliptical galaxy in the center — would really look like.

(Of course, if we could see in radio our entire sky would be a very optically busy place!)

Also known as 3C 348, Hercules A is incredibly massive — nearly 1,000 times the mass of our Milky Way galaxy with a similarly scaled-up version of  a supermassive black hole at its center. Due to its powerful gravity and intense magnetic field Hercules A’s monster black hole is firing superheated material far out into space from its rotational poles. Although invisible in optical light, these jets are bright in radio wavelengths and are thus revealed through VLA observations.

Traveling close to the speed of light, the jets stretch for nearly 1.5 million light-years from both sides of the galaxy. Ring-shaped structures within them suggest that occasional strong outbursts of material have occurred in the past.

Announced on November 29, these findings illustrate the combined imaging power of two of astronomy’s most valuable and cutting-edge tools: Hubble and the newly-updated VLA. The video below shows how it was all done… check it out.

Read more on the NRAO press release here.

Image credits: NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Source: NRAO.

Help Give the Very Large Array a New Name


The iconic Very Large Array is almost as much pop culture as science instrument. It’s been part of movie plots, on album covers, in comic books and video games. But now, the VLA is being transformed from its original 1970s-vintage technology with state-of-the-art equipment. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says that the upgrades will increase the VLA’s technical capabilities by factors of as much as 8,000 and greatly increasing the array’s scientific impact.

And so to befit the VLA’s new capabilities, NRAO has decided the array should have a new name. And they are looking for some help from the public.

The Very Large Array CREDIT: NRAO/AUI/NSF

There is a special website,, where you can submit a name suggestion. You may enter a free-form name, or a word or phrase to come as a prefix before “Very Large Array,” or both.

Entries will be accepted until 23:59 EST on December 1, 2011, and the new name will be announced at NRAO’s Town Hall at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, January 10, 2012.

“The VLA Expansion Project, begun in 2000, has increased the VLA’s technical capabilities by factors of as much as 8,000, and the new system allows scientists to do things they never could do before,” said Fred K.Y. Lo, Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “After more than three decades on the frontiers of science, the VLA now is poised for a new era as one of the world’s premier tools for meeting the challenges of 21st-Century astrophysics.”

Source: NRAO