Weather on distant brown dwarf studied

Jan. 10, 2013 at 4:31 PM
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LONG BEACH, Calif., Jan. 10 (UPI) -- U.S. astronomers say they have created a "weather map" of a brown dwarf, a class of strange, not-quite-star-and-not-quite-planet objects.

Researchers at the University of Arizona said NASA space telescopes enabled them to see wind-driven, planet-sized clouds enshrouding these strange worlds that form out of condensing gas like stars but fail to accrue enough mass to ignite the nuclear fusion process necessary to turn them into a star.

Brown dwarfs exist instead as dimly glowing, constantly cooling gas balls similar to gas planets with their complex, varied atmospheres.

"With Hubble and Spitzer [space telescopes], we were able to look at the layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body," Daniel Apai, principal investigator from the university, told an American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif.

The researchers said different layers, or patches, of material were observed swirling around the brown dwarf in windstorms as large as Earth itself.

"What we see here is evidence for massive, organized cloud systems, perhaps akin to giant versions of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter or large-scale storm systems on Earth," said Adam Showman, a theorist with the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Brown dwarfs range in size between Jupiter and the smallest stars and commonly weighing in at 30-40 Jupiter masses, the researchers said.

Although cool compared to other stars they are hot by Earthly standards, and the brown dwarf observed in the study is about 1,100 to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, they said.

"Brown dwarfs are fascinating and diverse,"Apai said. "Now we've got a new technique to chase their gigantic and violent storms."

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