mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

IfA astronomers find bright brown dwarf

It turns out that not all low-hanging fruit gets plucked first.  University of Hawai`i graduate students Brendan Bowler and Trent Dupuy along with astronomer Dr. Michael Liu recently discovered one of the brightest brown dwarfs currently known while mining the Sloan Digital Sky Survey database. 

With masses below 80 Jupiter masses, brown dwarfs are the lowest-mass objects that form like stars from the collapse of molecular clouds.  Also known as "failed stars", brown dwarfs do not have enough mass to create internal temperatures sufficiently high for hydrogen fusion to occur, which powers stars like our Sun.  Because of their low temperatures, brown dwarfs are excellent objects to help astronomers understand the atmospheres of giant planets orbiting other stars, which are much harder to study because of their proximity to bright stars.  Brown dwarfs therefore provide a natural laboratory to study the chemistry and weather that we might expect to occur on planets without the difficulty that collecting data on giant planets poses.

What makes the discovery of this new brown dwarf, named ``SDSS1416+13'', particularly interesting is its proximity (it is located about 8 parsecs, or 26 light years, from the Sun) and its peculiar colors that have only been seen in a few other brown dwarfs.  Comparing spectra of SDSS1416+13 taken at the Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea to theoretical models suggests that it probably has unusually thin clouds compared to other brown dwarfs with similar temperatures.  Its peculiar colors are also the reason why it was missed in previous searches.

Objects like SDSS1416+13 continue to teach astronomers that the only thing we can expect in nature is the unexpected.

The discovery of SDSS1416+13 was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.