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UH brown dwarf discovery challenges modern theories
Brown dwarf found near sun-like star, discovery groundbreaking

By Christine Cabalo
Ka Leo Staff Writer

January 14, 2002

Astronomers may now have to rethink their theories about heavenly formations.

A research team headed by University of Hawai'i at Manoa Beatrice Parrent fellow Dr. Michael Liu has discovered a brown dwarf near a star similar to our own sun.

The impact of the team's findings could have long lasting repercussions on how scientists look at the stars, according to Liu.

The brown dwarf Liu's team discovered is much bigger than what scientists would expect near a sun-like star that theorists will now have to explain how such an occurrence is possible.

"This finding suggests that a diversity of processes act to populate the outer regions of other solar systems," said Liu.

"The parent star is very similar to our sun, yet it has a brown dwarf companion whose mass is dozens of times the combined mass of all the planets in our solar system."

Brown dwarfs are objects categorized between stars and planets. Astronomers sometimes call them "failed stars" because they are too cold and small to initiate the nuclear reactions that are found in normal bright stars.

Yet, brown dwarfs are far bigger than the size of planets. The brown dwarf that was found by Liu and his associates is 55 to 78 times bigger than the planet Jupiter.

The estimated distance between the brown dwarf and the star is 14 Astronomical Units (AU), which is 14 times the distance between Earth and the sun. A single AU is about 93 million miles.

Normally, much smaller objects, like planets, form at those distances. The planet Saturn orbits the sun at 10 AU, and Uranus orbits at 19 AU.

"It's the closest we've ever seen a brown dwarf next to a star, but its odd because it's much larger than the planets we would normally expect to form there," said UH Professor and former director of the Mauna Kea observatories Bob Joseph.

The leading theory about the formation of our solar system contends that our planets were formed from gas and dust in the area near our sun when it was younger. The gas and dust collected formed terrestrial planets like Earth and Mercury, as well as more gaseous planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

Liu's research, presented at a recent press conference in Washington, D.C., contends that the brown dwarf seems to have been created from gas and dust leftover from its parent star, or the large star next to it.

"Its unlikely that the brown dwarf was created by a collision. Usually when those happen, objects tend to develop together. This brown dwarf doesn't seem to be captured in that way," said Joseph.

"It's a very exciting discovery," said Karen Rehbock, assistant to the director of the Institute for Astronomy. "It opens up a lot of possibilities for researchers," she said.  end of article dingbat


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