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Astronomers Announce First Clear Evidence of a Brown Dwarf

Release date: Nov 29, 1995 3:00 PM (EST)
Astronomers Announce First Clear Evidence of a Brown Dwarf

Astronomers have made the first unambiguous detection of an elusive type of object known as a brown dwarf.

The evidence consists of observations from 60-inch and 200-inch telescopes on Mount Palomar, and a confirmatory image from the Hubble telescope. The brown dwarf, called Gliese 229B (GL229B), is a small companion to the cool, red star Gliese 229, located 19 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lepus. Estimated to be 20 to 50 times the mass of Jupiter, GL229B is too massive and hot to be classified as a planet, but too small and cool to shine like a star. At least 100,000 times dimmer than Earth's Sun, the brown dwarf is the faintest object ever seen orbiting another star.

The Full Story
Release date: Nov 29, 1995
Astronomers Announce First Clear Evidence of a Brown Dwarf

Astronomers have made the first unambiguous detection and image of an elusive type of object known as a brown dwarf.

The evidence consists of an image from the 60-inch observatory on Mt. Palomar, a spectrum from the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mt. Palomar and a confirmatory image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The collaborative effort involved astronomers at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, and the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.

The brown dwarf, called Gliese 229B (GL229B), is a small companion to the cool red star Gliese 229, located 19 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lepus. Estimated to be 20 to 50 times the mass of Jupiter, GL229B is too massive and hot to be classified as a planet as we know it, but too small and cool to shine like a star. At least 100,000 times dimmer than Earth's Sun, the brown dwarf is the faintest object ever seen orbiting another star.

"This is the first time we have ever observed an object beyond our solar system which possesses a spectrum that is astonishingly just like that of a gas giant planet," said Shrinivas Kulkarni, a member of the team from Caltech.

Kulkarni added, however, that "it looks like Jupiter, but that's what you'd expect for a brown dwarf." The infrared spectroscopic observations of GL229B, made with the 200-inch Hale telescope at Palomar, show that the dwarf has the spectral fingerprint of the planet Jupiter - an abundance of methane. Methane is not seen in ordinary stars, but it is present in Jupiter and other giant gaseous planets in our solar system.

The Hubble data obtained and analyzed so far already show the object is far dimmer, cooler (no more than 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit) and less massive than previously reported brown dwarf candidates, which are all near the theoretical limit (eight percent the mass of our Sun) where a star has enough mass to sustain nuclear fusion.

Brown dwarfs are a mysterious class of long-sought object that forms the same way stars do, that is, by condensing out of a cloud of hydrogen gas. However, they do not accumulate enough mass to generate the high temperatures needed to sustain nuclear fusion at their core, which is the mechanism that makes stars shine. Instead brown dwarfs shine the same way that gas giant planets like Jupiter radiate energy, that is, through gravitational contraction. In fact, the chemical composition of GL229B's atmosphere looks remarkably like that of Jupiter.

The discovery is an important first step in the search for planetary systems beyond the Solar System because it will help astronomers distinguish between massive Jupiter-like planets and brown dwarfs orbiting other stars. Advances in ground- and space-based astronomy are allowing astronomers to further probe the "twilight zone" between larger planets and small stars as they search for substellar objects, and eventually, planetary systems.

Caltech astronomers Kulkarni, Tadashi Nakajima, Keith Matthews, and Ben Oppenheimer, and Johns Hopkins scientists Sam Durrance and David Golimowski first discovered the object in October 1994. Follow-up observations a year later were needed to confirm it is actually a companion to Gliese 229. The discovery was made with a 60-inch reflecting telescope at Palomar Observatory in southern California, using an image-sharpening device called the Adaptive Optics Coronagraph, designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University.

The same scientists teamed up with Chris Burrows of the Space Telescope Science Institute to use Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera-2 for follow-up observations on November 17. Another Hubble observation six months from now will yield an exact distance to GL229B.

The astronomers suspect that the brown dwarf developed during the normal star-formation process as one of two members of a binary system. "All our observations are consistent with brown dwarf theory," Durrance said. However, the astronomers say they cannot yet fully rule out the possibility that the object formed out of dust and gas in a circumstellar disk as a "super-planet."

Astronomers say the difference between planets and brown dwarfs is based on how they formed. Planets in the Solar System are believed to have formed out of a primeval disk of dust around the newborn Sun because all the planets' orbits are nearly circular and lie almost in the same plane. Brown dwarfs, like full-fledged stars, would have fragmented and gravitationally collapsed out of a large cloud of hydrogen but were not massive enough to sustain fusion reactions at their cores.

The orbit of GL229B could eventually provide clues to its origin. If the orbit is nearly circular then it may have formed out of a dust disk, where viscous forces in the dense disk would keep objects at about the same distance from their parent star. If the dwarf formed as a binary companion, its orbit probably would be far more elliptical, as seen on most binary stars. The initial Hubble observations will begin providing valuable data for eventually calculating the brown dwarf's orbit. However, the orbital motion is so slow, it will take many decades of telescopic observations before a true orbit can be calculated. GL229B is at least four billion miles from its companion star, which is roughly the separation between the planet Pluto and our Sun.

Astronomers have been trying to detect brown dwarfs for three decades. Their lack of success is partly due to the fact that as brown dwarfs age they become cooler, fainter, and more difficult to see. An important strategy used by the researchers to search for brown dwarfs was to view stars no older than a billion years. Caltech's Nakajima reasoned that, although brown dwarfs of that age would be much fainter than any known star, they would still be bright enough to be spotted.

"Another reason brown dwarfs were not detected years ago is that imaging technology really wasn't up to the task," Golimowski said. With the advent of sophisticated light sensors and adaptive optics, astronomers now have the powerful tools they need to resolve smaller and dimmer objects near stars.

Hubble was used to look for the presence of other companion objects as bright as the brown dwarf which might be as close to the star as one billion miles. No additional objects were found, though it doesn't rule out the possibility of Jupiter-sized or smaller planets around the star, said the researchers.

The Palomar results will also appear in the November 30 issue of the journal Nature and the December 1 issue of the journal Science.

A GALAXY DWELLER'S GUIDE TO PLANETS, STARS, AND DWARFS

"Twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are . . ."

Today, you might just as easily find astronomers humming this nursery rhyme as well as children. Rapid advances in telescope technology – adaptive optics, space observatories, interferometry, image processing techniques – are allowing astronomers to see ever fainter and smaller companions to normal stars. As telescopic capabilities sharpen, conventional definitions for planets and stars may seem to be getting blurry. In the search for other planetary systems, astronomers are turning up objects that straddle the dim twilight zone between planets and stars, and others that seem to contradict conventional wisdom, such as a planetary system accompanying a burned-out compacted star called a neutron star.

Stars

Stars are large gaseous bodies that generate energy through nuclear fusion processes at their cores –where temperatures and pressures are high enough for hydrogen nuclei to collide and fuse into helium nuclei, converting matter to energy in the process. Stars are born out of clouds of hydrogen, that collapse under gravity to form dense knots of gas. This collapse continues until enough pressure builds up to heat the gas and trigger nuclear fusion. The energy released by this "fusion-engine" halts the collapse, and the star is in equilibrium.

A star's brightness, temperature, color and lifetime are all determined by its initial mass. Our Sun is a typical middle-aged star halfway through its ten billion-year life. Stars can be 100 times more massive than our Sun, or less that 1/10 its mass. A Hubble Space Telescope search for dim stars suggests that most stars in the galaxy are about 1/5 the mass of our Sun.

Following a fiery birth, stars lead tranquil lives as inhabitants of the galaxy. Late in a star's life, fireworks can begin anew as changes in the core heat the stars further, eject its outer layers, and cause it to pulsate. All stars eventually burn out. Most collapse to white dwarf stars – dim planet-sized objects that are extraordinarily dense because they retain most of their initial mass. Extremely massive stars undergo catastrophic core collapse and explode as supernovae – the most energetic events in the universe. Black holes and neutron stars – ultra dense stellar remnants with intense gravitational fields – can be created in supernova blasts.

At least half of the stars in the galaxy have companion stars. These binary star systems can undergo complicated evolutionary changes as one star ages more rapidly than the companion and dies out. If the two stars are close enough together, gas will flow between them and this can trigger nova outbursts. Supernovae and novae are key forces in a grand cycle of stellar rebirth and renewal. Heavier elements cooked up in the fusion furnaces of stars are ejected back into space, serving as raw material for building new generations of stars and planets.

Planets

Though the universe contains billions upon billions of stars, until recently only nine planets were known – those of our solar system. The Solar System provides a fundamental model for what we might expect to find around other stars, but it's difficult to form generalities from just one example. It may turn out that nature is more varied and imaginative when it comes to building and distributing planets throughout the Galaxy.

In it simplest definition, a planet is a nonluminous body that orbits a star, and is typically a small fraction of the parent star's mass. Planets form out of a disk of dust and gas that encircles a newborn star. These embryonic disks have been observed around young stars, both in infrared and visible light. The planets' orbits in our solar system trace out the skeleton of just such a disk that encircled the newborn Sun.

Planets agglomerate from the collision of dust particles in the disk, and then snowball in size to solid bodies that continue gobbling up debris like cosmic Pac-Men. In the case of our solar system this led to eight major bodies, thousands to tens of thousands of miles across. (The ninth planet, Pluto, is probably a survivor of an early subclass of solar system inhabitants called icy dwarfs). A planet's mass and composition are determined by where it formed in the disk. In the case of our solar system the more massive planets are found far from the Sun, though not too far where material didn't have time to agglomerate (because orbital periods were so slow that chances for collisions were minimal).

Unlike asteroids which are cold chunks of solar system debris, a planet must be massive enough to have at least once had a molten core that differentiated the planet's interior. This is a process where heavier elements sank to the center and lighter elements float to the surface. According to this idea, planets should have dense rocky/metallic cores. Depending how far they formed from their parent star, they may retain a dense mantle of primordial hydrogen and helium. In the case of our solar system this establishes two families of planets: the inner rocky or terrestrial planets such as Earth and Mars, which have solid surfaces, and the outer gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn that are mostly gaseous and liquid. Massive planet like Jupiter are still gravitationally contracting and shine in infrared light.

Ironically, the first bonafide planetary system ever detected beyond our Sun exists around a neutron star - a collapsed stellar core left over from the star's self-detonation as a supernova. Resembling our inner solar system in terms of size and distribution, these three planets orbiting the crushed star probably formed after the star exploded. Apparently a disk must have formed after the stellar death, from which the planets agglomerated. Other suspected extrasolar planets also seem to defy conventional wisdom. An object orbiting the star 51 Pegasus may have the mass of Jupiter, but is 20 times closer to the star than Earth is from the Sun.

Brown Dwarfs

Brown dwarfs are the galaxy's underachievers. They never quite made it as stars. Like stars, brown dwarfs collapse out of a cloud of hydrogen. Like a planet they are too small to shine by nuclear fusion, and radiate energy only through gravitational contraction. (More massive brown dwarfs might have initiated fusion, but could not sustain it.) Their predicted masses range from several times the mass of Jupiter to a few percent the mass of our Sun. Spectroscopically, the cool dwarfs may resemble gas giant planets in terms of chemical composition.

A Color-Guide to Dwarfs

The different type of so-called "dwarfs" in the Galaxy would even befuddle the storybook character, Snow White:

• White dwarfs – Burned-out stars that no longer shine through nuclear fusion, and have collapsed to Earth-sized objects. Ironically, their surface temperature rises as they collapse and so the star is white-hot.
• Yellow dwarfs – Normal stars with our Sun's temperature and mass.
• Red dwarfs – Stars that are small, cooler and hence, dimmer than our Sun. The cooler a star the redder it is, just as a dying ember fades from yellow-orange to cherry-red.
• Brown dwarfs – Substellar objects that have formed like a star, but are not massive enough to sustain nuclear fusion processes.
• Black dwarfs – White dwarfs that cool to nearly absolute zero. The universe isn't old enough yet for black dwarfs to exist.