Brown Dwarf Weather Map
January 29, 2014

Astronomers Create First Weather Map Of Nearby Brown Dwarf

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Scientists using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory created the world’s first map of the weather on the surface of a brown dwarf.

The international team developed a map featuring the dark and light features of WISE J104915.57-531906.1B, which is the nearest brown dwarf to Earth. This brown dwarf, informally known as Luhman 16B, is one of two recently discovered brown dwarfs only six light years away from our Sun.

Brown dwarfs do not contain enough mass to initiate nuclear fusion in their cores and can only glow at infrared wavelengths of light. Scientists discovered the first brown dwarf only 20 years ago, and since then just a few hundred of these objects have been documented.

Astronomers using VLT were able to image the brown dwarf, as well as map out the features on the surface of Luhman 16B. The team observed the brown dwarf using the CRIRES instrument on VLT, allowing them to see the changing brightness as Luhman 16B rotated. They also observed as the dark and light features changed while the object moved away from or towards the observer. Using these observations, the team was able to recreate a map of the dark and light patches of the surface.

“Previous observations suggested that brown dwarfs might have mottled surfaces, but now we can actually map them. Soon, we will be able to watch cloud patterns form, evolve, and dissipate on this brown dwarf — eventually, exometeorologists may be able to predict whether a visitor to Luhman 16B could expect clear or cloudy skies,” said Ian Crossfield of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany and lead author of the new paper published in the journal Nature.

Brown dwarf atmospheres are similar to those of hot gas giant exoplanets. Astronomers will be able to use the latest study to learn more about the atmosphere of young, giant planets.

“Our brown dwarf map helps bring us one step closer to the goal of understanding weather patterns in other solar systems. From an early age I was brought up to appreciate the beauty and utility of maps. It's exciting that we're starting to map objects out beyond the Solar System,” said Crossfield.