October 20, 2011

Scientists find brown dwarf star that could be cool enough to touch

The photo of a nearby star and its orbiting companion -- whose temperature is like a hot summer day in Arizona -- will be presented by Penn State Associate Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Kevin Luhman during the Signposts of Planets conference at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on 20 October 2011. A paper describing the discovery will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

"This planet-like companion is the coldest object ever directly photographed outside our solar system," said Luhman, who led the discovery team. "Its mass is about the same as many of the known extra-solar planets -- about six to nine times the mass of Jupiter -- but in other ways it is more like a star. Essentially, what we have found is a very small star with an atmospheric temperature about cool as the Earth's."

Luhman classifies this object as a "brown dwarf," an object that formed just like a star out of a massive cloud of dust and gas. But the mass that a brown dwarf accumulates is not enough to ignite thermonuclear reactions in its core, resulting in a failed star that is very cool.

In the case of the new brown dwarf, the scientists determined the temperature of its surface to be between 80 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit -- possibly as cool as a human.

Finding new records

Ever since brown dwarfs first were discovered in 1995, astronomers have been trying to find new record holders for the coldest brown dwarfs because these objects are valuable as laboratories for studying the atmospheres of planets with Earth-like temperatures outside our solar system.

Astronomers have named the brown dwarf "WD 0806-661 B" because it is the orbiting companion of an object named "WD 0806-661" -- the "white dwarf" core of a star that was like the Sun until its outer layers were expelled into space during the final phase of its evolution. "The distance of this white dwarf from the Sun is 63 light years, which is very near our solar system compared with most stars in our galaxy," Luhman said.

Luhman and his colleagues presented this new candidate for the coldest known brown dwarf in a paper published in the Spring of 2011, and now they have confirmed its record-setting cool temperature in a new paper that will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.


This research was sponsored by grants from the National Science Foundation and the NASA Astrophysics Theory Program.


Image credit: NASA