Two new brown dwarf solar neighbors discovered
The two new neighbors attracted attention by the contrast between their strong brightness in the infrared and their almost invisible appearance in optical light.
July 14, 2011
Scientists from the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) have discovered two new brown dwarfs at estimated distances of only 15 and 18 light-years from the Sun. For comparison: The next star to the Sun, Proxima, is located slightly more than 4 light-years from the Sun, whereas the nearest known brown dwarfs, Epsilon Indi Ba and Bb, also found at the AIP several years ago, are about 12 light-years away.
False-color images of the two brown dwarf discoveries WISE J0254+0223 and WISE J1741+2553. Credit: AIP/NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive
Ralf-Dieter Scholz and his AIP colleagues used the recently published data of the NASA satellite WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) for their discovery. The two new solar neighbors, named WISE J0254+0223 and WISE J1741+2553, attracted attention by the extreme contrast between their strong brightness in the infrared and their almost invisible appearance in optical light. In addition, both objects move at comparably fast speed across the sky, i.e., their positions are remarkably different with respect to earlier observations. This was the first hint of their vicinity that was confirmed by the comparison of their colors and magnitudes with those of other objects. The brighter of the two objects was visible in the night sky at the time of its discovery, so that the AIP team could use the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona for determining the spectral type and distance more accurately. Both objects belong to the coolest representatives of T-type brown dwarfs, just at the boundary to the predicted but not yet well-defined class of Y-type ultra-cool brown dwarfs.
Brown dwarfs are also called failed stars because they could not accumulate enough mass during their formation to ignite the natural nuclear fusion reactor in their core, which is the long-living energy source of stars. Therefore, their brightness decreases with time. Presumably, most brown dwarfs have reached surface temperatures below the “oven temperature” of about 500 kelvin (440° Fahrenheit [225° Celsius]), maybe even as cool as the temperature of Earth’s surface. The search for these elusive neighbors of the Sun is currently in full swing. It cannot be excluded that ultra-cool brown dwarfs surround us in similar high numbers as stars and that our nearest known neighbor will soon be a brown dwarf rather than Proxima Centauri.