Molten iron rain possible on brown dwarfs

Weather maps of a brown dwarf confirms NASA’s suspicions.

Since the discovery of brown dwarfs in 1995, they have remained a mystery to astronomers. According to NASA, a brown dwarf is an object between fifteen to seventy-five times the mass of Jupiter. Their size prevents the fusion of hydrogen that would otherwise make them a star, as well, they produce a small amount of light that distinguishes them from being planets. This small amount of light and lack of fusion is the reasoning why they are often referred to as ‘failed stars.’

These failed stars are proving to be hard to study. They are so far away, that as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Adan Burgasser put it, “everything is just a point of light.” From mathematical models and specialized telescopes, astronomers could gather some information on these far-away objects. They knew they were made mostly from gas. Younger brown dwarfs, which burn at hotter temperatures then their older relatives, were hot enough to keep iron in a gaseous state.

Brown dwarfs have extreme weather conditions. They contain multiple layers of clouds in their atmosphere. This can cause confusion as to what is happening in these odd environments. The deeper a cloud is in the atmosphere, the more sensitive it is to movements. Until recently, their weather patterns were a mystery.

That all changed when astronomers looked a specific brown dwarf named Luhman 16B. Luhman 16B is located a distant six-and-a-half light years away, and for the first time, they were able to map the atmosphere of this far away world.

Since brown dwarfs do create light, astronomers measured the changes of luminosity as Luhman 16B rotated. They looked at changes that occurred at different latitudes and depths, and with the new found data, the atmosphere could be understood like never before. As it turns out, these atmospheres are home to scorching hot clouds that are made of a mixture of liquid iron and other minerals.

Looking to the future these finding are exciting. “Our brown dwarf map helps bring us one step closer to the goal of understanding weather patterns in other solar systems,” said Ian Crossfield of Germany’s Max Planck Institute. As telescopes continue to progress, soon it will be possible to locate distant brown dwarfs and eventually study their weather patterns as well.

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