Wise Robotic News
November 9, 2010 20:58:25
Cool Star is a Gem of a Find
By Source: JPL

Pasadena - NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has eyed its first cool brown dwarf: a tiny, ultra-cold star floating all alone in space.

WISE is scanning the whole sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of not just brown dwarfs but also asteroids, stars and galaxies. It has sent millions of images down to Earth, in which infrared light of different wavelengths is color-coded in the images.

"The brown dwarfs jump out at you like big, fat, green emeralds," said Amy Mainzer, the deputy project scientist of WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Mainzer, who makes jewelry in her spare time, explained that the brown dwarfs appear like green gems in WISE images because the methane in their atmospheres absorbs the infrared light that has been coded blue, and because they are too faint to give off the infrared light that is color-coded red. The only color left is green.

Like Jupiter, brown dwarfs are made up of gas -- a lot of it in the form of methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia. These gases would be deadly to humans at the concentrations found around brown dwarfs. And they wouldn't exactly smell pretty.

"If you could bottle up a gallon of this object's atmosphere and bring it back to Earth, smelling it wouldn't kill you, but it would stink pretty badly -- like rotten eggs with a hint of ammonia," said Mainzer.

Mainzer and other members of the WISE team are already accumulating a quarry of brown dwarf candidates similar to this one. Brown dwarfs have masses somewhere between those of a star and a planet. They start out like stars as collapsing balls of gas, but they lack the mass to fuse atoms together at their core and shine with starlight. As time goes on, these lightweights cool off, until they can only be seen in infrared light. There could be many such objects lurking in the neighborhood of our sun, but astronomers know of only a handful so far. WISE is expected to find hundreds, including the coolest and closest of all.

To scientists, brown dwarfs represent the perfect laboratories for studying planet-like atmospheres.

"They're a great test of our understanding of atmospheric physics of planets, since they don't have solid surfaces, and there's no big, bright sun to get in the way," said co-author Michael Cushing, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL.

WISE's new brown dwarf is named WISEPC J045853.90+643451.9 for its location in the sky. It is estimated to be 18 to 30 light-years away and is one of the coolest brown dwarfs known, with a temperature of about 600 Kelvin, or 620 degrees Fahrenheit. That's downright chilly as far as stars go. The fact that this brown dwarf jumped out of the data so easily and so quickly -- it was spotted 57 days into the survey mission -- indicates that WISE will discover many, many more. The discovery was confirmed by follow-up observations at the University of Virginia's Fan Mountain telescope, the Large Binocular Telescope in southeastern Arizona, and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The results are in press at the Astrophysical Journal.

Read more about how NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and WISE are hunting down the coldest brown dwarfs.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA

A cool brown dwarf discovered and imaged by NASA's WISE mission

That green dot in the middle of this image might look like an emerald amidst glittering diamonds, but it is actually a dim star belonging to a class called brown dwarfs. This particular object, named "WISEPC J045853.90+643451.9" after its location in the sky, is the first ultra-cool brown dwarf discovered by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. WISE is scanning the skies in infrared light, picking up the signatures of all sort of cosmic gems, including brown dwarfs.

The mission's infrared vision makes it particularly good at picking brown dwarfs out of a starry sky. This view shows three of WISE's four infrared channels, color-coded blue, green and red, with blue showing the shortest wavelengths of infrared light and red, the longest. The methane in the atmospheres of brown dwarfs absorbs this color-coded blue light, and the objects themselves are too faint to give off a lot of the red light. That leaves green. As can be seen in this picture, the little green dot of a brown dwarf stands out against the sparkly, hotter blue stars.

The brown dwarf is located 18 to 30 light-years away in the northern constellation of Camelopardalis, or the giraffe; in fact, the brown dwarf is positioned right on the neck of the giraffe, adorning it like an emerald necklace. This is one of the coolest brown dwarfs known, with a temperature of roughly 600 Kelvin, or 620 degrees Fahrenheit.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA

 

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