NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered surprising evidence that powerful magnetic fields might exist around the lowest mass stars in the universe, which are near the threshold of stellar burning processes.
"New theories will have to be developed to explain how these strong fields are produced, since conventional models predict that these low mass red dwarfs should have very weak or no magnetic fields," says Dr. Jeffrey Linsky of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) in Boulder, Colorado. "The Hubble observations provide clear evidence that very low mass red dwarf stars must have some form of dynamo to amplify their magnetic fields."
His conclusions are based upon Hubble's detection of a high-temperature outburst, called a flare, on the surface of the extremely small, cool red dwarf star Van Biesbroeck 10 (VB10) also known as Gliese 752B. Stellar flares are caused by intense, twisted magnetic fields that accelerate and contain gasses which are much hotter than a star's surface.
Explosive flares are common on the Sun and expected for stars that have internal structures similar to our Sun's. Stars as small as VB10 are predicted to have a simpler internal structure than that of the Sun and so are not expected to generate the electric currents required for magnetic fields that drive flares.
Besides leading to a clearer understanding of the interior structure of the smallest red dwarf stars known, these unexpected results might possibly shed light on brown dwarf stars. A brown dwarf is a long-sought class of astronomical object that is too small to shine like a star through nuclear fusion processes, but is too large to be considered a planet.
"Since VB10 is nearly a brown dwarf, it is likely brown dwarfs also have strong magnetic fields," says Linsky. "Additional Hubble searches for flares are needed to confirm this prediction."
A Quarter-million Degree Torch
The star VB10 and its companion star Gliese 752A make up a binary system located 19 light-years away in the constellation Aquila. Gliese 752A is a red dwarf that is one-third the mass of the Sun and slightly more than half its diameter. By contrast, VB10 is physically smaller than the planet Jupiter and only about nine percent the mass of our Sun. This very faint star is near the threshold of the lowest possible mass for a true star (.08 solar masses), below which nuclear fusion processes cannot take place according to current models.
A team led by Linsky used Hubble's Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph (GHRS) to make a one-hour long exposure of VB10 on October 12, 1994. No detectable ultraviolet emission was seen until the last five minutes, when bright emission was detected in a flare. Though the star's normal surface temperature is 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit, Hubble's GHRS detected a sudden burst of 270,000 degrees Fahrenheit in the star's outer atmosphere. Linsky attributes this rapid heating to the presence of an intense, but unstable, magnetic field.
The Interior Workings of a Stellar Dynamo
Before the Hubble observation, astronomers thought magnetic fields in stars required the same dynamo process which creates magnetic fields on the Sun. In the classic solar model, heat generated by nuclear fusion reactions at the star's center escapes through a radiative zone just outside the core. The heat travels from the radiative core to the star's surface through a convection zone. In this region, heat bubbles to the surface by motions similar to boiling in a pot of water.
Dynamos, which accelerate electrons to create magnetic forces, operate when the interior of a star rotates faster than the surface. Recent studies of the Sun indicate its convective zone rotates at nearly the same rate at all depths. This means the solar dynamo must operate in the more rapidly rotating radiative core just below the convective zone.
The puzzle is that stars below 20 percent the mass of our Sun do not have radiative cores, but instead transport heat from their core through convection only. The new Hubble observations suggest a magnetic dynamo perhaps of a new type can operate inside these stars.
These results are being reported at the 185th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Tucson, Arizona.
Dr. Jeffrey Linsky/JILA