Astronomers find evidence for cloudy weather on failed stars

October 4th, 2008 - 1:53 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Oct 4 (ANI): A team of University of Hawaii, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and MIT astronomers, using one of the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, has found evidence for cloudy weather on failed stars.

The star in question, 2M1404B, has a mass of about 3 percent of the mass of our sun and lives with its slightly more massive sibling, 2M1404A, 75 light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus.

While 2M1404A is socked in by thick clouds, the cloud layer in 2M1404B seems to be breaking up into patches.

Both failed stars are brown dwarfs, objects whose mass is between that of large gaseous planets, such as Jupiter, and ordinary stars.

These are not normal stars because they are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen, so they cool and fade as they become older.

Normally, the more massive a star or brown dwarf is, the more radiation it emits. So, the team was surprised to find that 2M1404B emits 60 percent more near-infrared radiation than its higher-mass sibling.

While smaller discrepancies have been seen in three other brown dwarf pairs, the size of this anomaly is most easily explained by clouds breaking up, said Dagny Looper, a UH graduate student and lead author of the study.

After a stable childhood during which it exhausts its deuterium (heavy hydrogen) fuel, a brown dwarf steadily cools down until materials such as enstatite (a common mineral) and iron condense to form thick globe-covering clouds.

Like smog on Earth, the dust absorbs light, causing a brown dwarf to appear dimmer in the near infrared (at a wavelength of 1.2 micrometers) than it would without the clouds.

But when brown dwarfs cool down even further, to temperatures comparable to those observed in 2M1404B (about 1700 degrees F or 900 C), the clouds suddenly disappear.

The resulting clear skies cause the brown dwarf to appear brighter at certain wavelengths.

According to team member Dr. Adam Burgasser, an assistant professor at MIT, similar brightenings have been seen in clear patches in Jupiters cloud decks.

There appears to be an interesting connection between the clouds on planets and the clouds on brown dwarfs, he said.

Like many other brown dwarf binaries, the separation in the sky between the two components is very small, commented team member Dr. Chris Gelino.

The adaptive optics system on Keck II is playing a crucial role in our understanding of brown dwarf physics, especially with discoveries like this one, he added. (ANI)

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