Space

April 25, 2014

NASA’s Spitzer, WISE telescopes find close, cold neighbor of sun

This artist’s conception shows the object named WISE J085510.83-071442.5, the coldest known brown dwarf. This cool star-like body is as frosty as the North Pole (or between minus 54 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit). It is also the fourth closest system to our sun, at 7.2 light-years from Earth.

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered what appears to be the coldest “brown dwarf” known – a dim, star-like body that, surprisingly, is as frosty as Earth’s North Pole.

Images from the space telescopes also pinpointed the object’s distance to 7.2 light-years away, earning it the title for fourth closest system to our sun. The closest system, a trio of stars, is Alpha Centauri, at about 4 light-years away.

“It’s very exciting to discover a new neighbor of our solar system that is so close,” said Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, University Park. “And given its extreme temperature, it should tell us a lot about the atmospheres of planets, which often have similarly cold temperatures.”

Brown dwarfs start their lives like stars, as collapsing balls of gas, but they lack the mass to burn nuclear fuel and radiate starlight. The newfound coldest brown dwarf is named WISE J085510.83-071442.5. It has a chilly temperature between minus 54 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 48 to minus 13 degrees Celsius). Previous record holders for coldest brown dwarfs, also found by WISE and Spitzer, were about room temperature.

WISE was able to spot the rare object because it surveyed the entire sky twice in infrared light, observing some areas up to three times. Cool objects like brown dwarfs can be invisible when viewed by visible-light telescopes, but their thermal glow – even if feeble – stands out in infrared light. In addition, the closer a body, the more it appears to move in images taken months apart. Airplanes are a good example of this effect: a closer, low-flying plane will appear to fly overhead more rapidly than a high-flying one.

“This object appeared to move really fast in the WISE data,” said Luhman. “That told us it was something special.”

After noticing the fast motion of WISE J085510.83-071442.5 in March, 2013, Luhman spent time analyzing additional images taken with Spitzer and the Gemini South telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile. Spitzer’s infrared observations helped determine the frosty temperature of the brown dwarf. Combined detections from WISE and Spitzer, taken from different positions around the sun, enabled the measurement of its distance through the parallax effect. This is the same principle that explains why your finger, when held out right in front of you, appears to jump from side to side when you alternate left- and right-eye views.

“It is remarkable that even after many decades of studying the sky, we still do not have a complete inventory of the sun’s nearest neighbors,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. JPL manages and operates Spitzer. “This exciting new result demonstrates the power of exploring the universe using new tools, such as the infrared eyes of WISE and Spitzer.”

WISE J085510.83-071442.5 is estimated to be 3 to 10 times the mass of Jupiter. With such a low mass, it could be a gas giant similar to Jupiter that was ejected from its star system. But scientists estimate it is probably a brown dwarf rather than a planet since brown dwarfs are known to be fairly common. If so, it is one of the least massive brown dwarfs known.

In March of 2013, Luhman’s analysis of the images from WISE uncovered a pair of much warmer brown dwarfs at a distance of 6.5 light years, making that system the third closest to the sun. His search for rapidly moving bodies also demonstrated that the outer solar system probably does not contain a large, undiscovered planet, which has been referred to as “Planet X” or “Nemesis.”




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
Untitled-1

NASA commercial crew partners complete 23 milestones in 2014

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and the agency’s industry partners completed 23 agreement and contract milestones in 2014 and participated in thousands of hours of technical review sessions. The sessions focused on creating ...
 
 

NASA selects commercial space partners for collaborative partnerships

NASA announced Dec. 23 the selection of four U.S. companies to collaborate with NASA through unfunded partnerships to develop new space capabilities available to the government and other customers. The partnerships build on the success of NASA’s commercial spaceflight initiatives to leverage NASA experience and expertise into new capabilities. The Collaborations for Commercial Space Capab...
 
 

SpaceX completes first milestone for Commercial Crew Transportation System

NASA has approved the completion of SpaceX’s first milestone in the company’s path toward launching crews to the International Space Station from U.S. soil under a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract with the agency. During the Certification Baseline Review, SpaceX described its current design baseline including how the company plans to manufacture its Crew Dragon spacecraft...
 

 
XCOR Aerospace/Mike Massee

XCOR announces further progress on the XCOR Lynx spacecraft

XCOR Aerospace/Mike Massee The XCOR Lynx suborbital rocketplane under construction as of December 2014. Fuselage, cockpit and Carry-through-spar are bonded, propulsion system test-mounted, sans propellant pumps.   MOJAVE, ...
 
 
Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

NASA’s Kepler reborn, makes first exoplanet find of new mission

Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle The artistic concept shows NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2. Using publicly available data, astronomers have confirmed K2&...
 
 
NASA illustration

NASA, planetary scientists find meteoritic evidence of Mars water reservoir

This illustration depicts Martian water reservoirs. Recent research provides evidence for the existence of a third reservoir that is intermediate in isotopic composition between the Red Planetís mantle and its current atmosphe...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>