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Scientists snap first images of brown dwarf in planetary system


Monday, September 18, 2006

Scientists using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered and directly imaged a small brown dwarf star, 50 times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting with a planet around a sunlike star. Such an arrangement has never before been seen but might be common, the scientists said, leading to solar systems with distorted planetary orbits.

Kevin Luhman of Penn State is the lead author on a report describing this discovery, which will be published in The Astrophysical Journal. The discovery concerns a class of the coldest brown dwarfs, called T dwarfs.

“Over the last 10 years, astronomers have been extremely successful in finding planets close to their host stars using indirect detection methods,” said Luhman, an assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Because of its infrared capabilities, Spitzer is well suited for directly detecting cool T dwarfs, and perhaps even large planets, in the outer parts of planetary systems.”

Luhman’s team also discovered a second brown dwarf that is smaller yet, about 20 times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting another star. This smaller object could be the youngest T dwarf known, offering scientists a snapshot of early brown-dwarf development. The two T dwarfs are the first to be imaged by Spitzer. Shortly after these companions were found, Spitzer also discovered a T dwarf that is floating through space by itelf rather than orbiting a star. The team that discovered that T dwarf is led by Daniel Stern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Brown dwarfs are small stars that are not massive enough to burn hydrogen, like the sun does. Their cores are not hot enough to trigger such nuclear fusion. As a result, their surface temperature is only a few thousands of degrees when young, cooling considerably to about the temperature of a planet as they age. Consequently, they are dim and hard to identify and, as a result, the first unambiguous identification came only about 10 years ago.

The more massive of the two newly discovered T dwarfs is called HD 3651 B, located in the constellation Pisces. This object is in a solar system containing a star slightly less massive than the sun that is orbited by a planet slightly smaller than Saturn.

The planet’s orbit around the sunlike star is highly elliptical, which had suggested that the gravity of some unseen object farther away from the star was pulling the planet outward. Sure enough, it was a T dwarf. Many extrasolar planets have been discovered with highly elliptical orbits. The Spitzer discovery is the first evidence to support the theory that small companions such as T dwarfs can hide in such solar systems and can cause the orbits of planets to be extreme.

“The orbit of the planet in this system is similar to Mercury’s, but the T dwarf has an orbit more thanr 10 times larger than Pluto’s,” said Brian Patten of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a co-author. “Although HD 3651 B would be just beyond naked-eye visibility to an intrepid astronomer living on this system’s planet, the T dwarf makes its presence known through gravity.”

The other T dwarf is called HN Peg B in the constellation Pegasus. Whereas most brown dwarfs are billions of years old, HN Peg B is relatively young, only about 300 million years old. The scientists determined its age by carefully studying the companion star, which was formed at the same time from the same gas cloud. The system also contains a previously discovered disk of dust and rocks.

“Detectable debris disks and T dwarf companions are fairly rare, so the presence of both around the same star makes this a particularly exciting star system,” said Giovanni Fazio, also of the center, a co-author.

The discoveries were made with Spitzer’s infrared camera, built primarily at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The instrument’s principal investigator is Fazio. Other team members include Massimo Marengo, Joseph Hora, Richard Ellis, Michael Schuster, Sarah Sonnett, Elaine Winston and Robert Gutermuth of the Center for Astrophysics; John Stauffer of Caltech; Tom Megeath of the University of Toledo; Dana Backman of the SOFIA/SETI Institute; Tod Henry of Georgia State University; and Michael Werner of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.


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