Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have probed the stormy atmosphere of a brown dwarf, creating the most detailed “weather map” yet for this class of cool, star-like orbs.
The forecast shows wind-driven, planet-sized clouds enshrouding these strange worlds.
Brown dwarfs form out of condensing gas, as stars do, but lack the mass to fuse hydrogen atoms and produce energy. Instead, these objects, which some call failed stars, are more similar to gas planets with their complex, varied atmospheres.
The new research is a stepping stone toward a better understanding not only of brown dwarfs, but also of the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system.
“With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at different atmospheric layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body,” Daniel Apai, the principal investigator of the research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said.
The researchers turned Hubble and Spitzer simultaneously toward a brown dwarf with the long name of 2MASS J22282889-431026.
They found that its light varied in time, brightening and dimming about every 90 minutes as the body rotated. But more surprising, the team also found the timing of this change in brightness depended on whether they looked using different wavelengths of infrared light.
These variations are the result of different layers or patches of material swirling around the brown dwarf in windy storms as large as Earth itself.
Spitzer and Hubble see different atmospheric layers because certain infrared wavelengths are blocked by vapors of water and methane high up, while other infrared wavelengths emerge from much deeper layers.
The study is published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.