Tech UPTechnologyThey discover the closest brown dwarf to Earth

They discover the closest brown dwarf to Earth

Brown dwarfs are ‘the middle child of astronomy’: too big to be a planet, but not big enough to be a star. This beautiful metaphor is used by the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Oklahoma, and other scientists around the world to announce the discovery of a new brown dwarf, the youngest of its kind in an area of 102 parsecs (about 332 light years) from Earth. The brown dwarf, called W1200-78, appears to have a type of disk that could form planets.

Like their stellar brethren, these objects are formed from the gravitational collapse of gas and dust. But instead of condensing into a star’s fiery core, brown dwarfs reach a state of equilibrium, more stable compared to fusion-powered stars (like our Sun).

Because they glow relatively dimly, they are difficult to detect in the night sky. Like stars, some brown dwarfs can retain the swirling disk of gas and dust left over from their initial formation. This material can collide and accumulate to form planets, although it is not clear exactly what type of planets the brown dwarfs can generate.

Citizen Science in Search of Stars

The brown dwarf was discovered through Disk Detective, a crowdfunding project funded by NASA and hosted by Zooniverse that provides images of objects in space for the public to classify, with the goal of selecting objects that are likely stars with disks that could host planets.

Users of Diskdetective.org, which was first launched in 2014, can look through “flipbooks,” images of the same object in space, taken by NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Explorer, or WISE, which detects infrared emissions such as thermal radiation emitted by gas and dust debris in stellar discs. Anyone can classify an object based on certain criteria , such as whether the object appears oval, a shape that more closely resembles a galaxy, or round, a sign that the object is more likely to be a star that houses disks.

From there, a scientific team tracks the disks sorted by crowds, using more sophisticated telescopes and methods to determine if they really are disks and what characteristics they may have.

A set of stars that move in a group

In the case of the newly discovered W1200-7845, citizen scientists first classified the object as a disk in 2016. The science team took a closer look at the source with an infrared instrument at the Magellan telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. With these new observations, they determined that the source was, in fact, a disk around a brown dwarf that lived within a ‘moving group’, a group of stars that tend to move as one in the night sky.

In astronomy, it is much easier to determine the age of a group of objects rather than just one. Because the brown dwarf was part of a moving group of about 30 stars, the researchers were able to estimate an age, about 3.7 million years, probably that of the brown dwarf as well.

Due to its close proximity, about 102 parsecs away, W1200-7845 has become the closest brown dwarf ever detected. That is to say, it is in our same ‘solar neighborhood’. To get an idea, our closest star, Alpha Centauri, is only 1 parsec from Earth.

The researchers presented their findings at a virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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