A Hidden Cosmic Neighbor: Cool Brown Dwarf Found Lurking Near Our Solar System

By Andrew Moseman | April 12, 2010 10:59 am

Brown dwarfAstronomers have discovered the closest new star to us that’s been spotted in 63 years. Though “star” might be a stretch, depending upon whom you ask.

The new find, UGPS 0722-05, is less than 10 light years from here. But sky-watchers missed it for so long because it’s a brown dwarf, a member of the murky class of celestial objects that linger between gas giant planets and low-mass stars. Brown dwarfs have so little mass that they never get hot enough to sustain the nuclear fusion reactions that power stars like the sun. Still, they do shine, because they glow from the heat of their formation, then cool and fade [New Scientist]. This dwarf’s temperature is somewhere between 266 and 446 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the coldest scientists have even seen. With its minimal activity, the brown dwarf gives off just 0.000026 percent the amount of light that our sun does.

Like dwarf planets, which cast aside the 9-planet solar system of our childhoods and riled Pluto-philes everywhere, brown dwarfs don’t lend themselves to simple scientific definitions. The International Astronomical Union sets the planet–brown dwarf boundary at 13 times the mass of Jupiter. But that mass limit is an imperfect definition—what of brown dwarf–size bodies that orbit stars, behaving themselves like supersized planets [Scientific American]? The nomenclature could get even messier when the details of this new find are confirmed. Study leader Philip Lucas and his colleagues suggest that the newly discovered brown dwarf is so cool that it might be the first member of a new class of ultralow temperature dwarfs. Although one fingerprint of such a new class, absorption of infrared light by ammonia, appears to be missing, only “time will tell” if the discovery merits a new classification, the researchers note [Science News].

Lucas’ team’s paper is currently being submitted to the journal Nature, where the peer-review process should help to verify how close the team was with its parallax measurement of the brown dwarf’s distance. If they’re correct, UGPS 0722-05 will not only beat out the previous record-holders for proximity to Earth—a binary set of brown dwarfs in the Epsilon Indi system, about 11.8 light-years away—it would also suggest that perhaps more of these shadowy celestial objects linger even closer to us.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Hi Ho, Hi Ho—Brown dwarfs are the missing links between stars and planets
DISCOVER: Works in Progress—When it’s a planet that’s not a planet
Bad Astronomy: Brown Dwarf T Party
Bad Astronomy: The Upper Limit to a Planet

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • Georg

    What is this picture meant to show?
    That brown dwarf? 446 °F (about 220 °C) is not glowing at all!
    Lacking a nearby suns light, it will be black, maybe “visible” by
    obscuring stars behind.
    Georg

  • Chris

    Oh lovely,

    Here come the end of world prophesizors. ‘We told you there were brown dwarfs out there! Nibiru exists and we are all going to die by 2012 etc, etc, etc…’ 10 light years away is close astronomically speaking but in terms of impact to our solar system, there is none.

  • Cassandra

    Don’t worry Chris – we’ll be nit-picked to death long before Nibiru or UGPS 0722-05 can kill us off.

  • Brad

    What if the myans just got tired of making new calenders?

  • Jeanne Tucker

    Hey, we’ve already got the 2012 crowd shouting that the sky is falling. This will just add a litle spice to their agenda.

  • JMW

    I suppose it’s been suggested before, but it would seem to me logical that the coldest known brown dwarf should be christened “Bashful”.

  • KZK

    Unless they find one closer, it should be named Nemesis:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemesis_(star)

  • amphiox

    It would be so cool (and so convenient), if we found one substantially closer, like within 1-2 lightyears which was the proposed distance of the Nemesis hypothesis.

    And if it had satellites! (Would we call them planets or moons? Add that to the plutoid vs dwarf planet vs planet and the brown dwarf vs super Jupiter debates!)

    Interstellar exploration would become that much easier (well not easy easier, but better than the 4 ly to the Centauri stars) and get that much more of a political impetus.

    Well, one can dream. . . .

  • LearnAsIGo

    Anyone has any insight on the recent flurry of earthquakes? Why the sudden influx?
    No “prophecies” please….

  • Osama_is_Obama

    LOL Chris this really does show proof that Nibiru exists. I believe If I remember correctly when two solar systems were formed Nibiru was swallowed into this one and maybe the other one could be this brown dwarf system could be the remains of the dying solar system.

  • http://dannygetyourguns.townhall.com AJJONES

    the earthquake flurry, is not a flurry…we have just as many, every other year too!…fact!

  • Glen Danzig

    PHOTOSHOP!!

  • jesus

    Nibiru!!!!!!!

  • kelly

    Hi everyone,

    people need to stop being so skeptical and keep their minds open to possibilities…………….noone is saying that Nibiru is going to enter our solar system, crash into us and then BANG the world is over!! but what is likely to happen is that when Nibiru continues to move closer to earth and our sun,it will have a huge impact causing the sun to react aggresively. Acts of god such as earthquakes, tsnunamis, volcanic eruptions,etc will increase on a global scale, this inturn will destroy things as we know it, increasing flooding, famine, disease, death’s etc etc across the globe.

    Nibiru has already started to have a negative effect on our planet in terms of global warming and is also responsible for global warming issues on Mars and Pluto. Now i realise natural disasters have been around since day dot, but the closer nibiru gets to us the more frequent, severe and unpredicted these events will become…………you’ll see what till october 2010 when the ball starts rolling, and once its started it down hill from there im afraid.

    If Nibiru was a hoax and a natural disaster was not expected why would our own Queen buy up half of Colorado including the land that houses Denver Airport????????? Its because if things go as expected, a third of the planet will disappear including the UK and other parts of Europe and the east coast of America and the Queen and her Royals can escape and get to safety when required.

  • about time

    interesting find. would have liked some coordinates in the article.

    why is it so cold? a new classification possible? hmm. maybe its cloaked in gold dust !!!

    the world is resembling ‘wonderland’ more and more each day. the queen bought half of colorado? hmm – i wonder if she’d be interested in a gold cloaked brown dwarf?

  • Shaun

    Regarding the Earthquakes, yes they are increasing in frequency. in the 38 year period between 1939 to 1976 there were 71 quakes above magnitude 7. In the 33 year period between 1977 and now, there have been 151 quakes.

    Who knows why. I saw a really interesting blog that suggested it was due to the increasing level of oil being extracted from the earth. Now that we know Oil is not a fossil fuel I think this theory has gravitas. especially if you consider the potential role of oil in relation to the tectonic plates. (Oils primary function is a lubricant).

    But who knows, just a thought.
    Shaun

  • http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18757-dark-sun-is-one-of-our-nearest-neighbours.html Boredandstupid

    What a lazy author of that article. Ken Croswell you’re a useless science reporter!

    The article is wrong where it says, “Brown dwarfs have so little mass that they never get hot enough to sustain the nuclear fusion reactions that power stars like the sun. Still, they do shine, because they glow from the heat of their formation, then cool and fade.”

    All brown dwarfs, at least for the first few 100 million years or so, sustain nuclear fusion! They only fuse deutrium, if they’re small and lithium or tritium, if they are bigger. That is why they are called stars and not planets, d’oh!!

    “Still, they do shine because they glow from the heat of their formation, then cool and fade..” NO! That is completely wrong because that is exactly what planets do. They glow in the infrared, even our very own planet, the Earth, still shines.

  • http://www.springerlink.com/content/7xvm40v048m05642/ Boredstupidandcantspell

    I meant to say Brown dwarfs fuse ‘Deuterium’ (heavy water) and not ‘Deutrium’.

  • BrownDwarf

    Deuterium is NOT heavy water. It’s heavy hydrogen (hydrogen-2).

    Deuterium burning in a brown dwarf does NOT last 100 million years. It lasts only a few million years–a short time in the object’s total life–so brown dwarfs do NOT sustain nuclear fusion. And they do shine because they glow from the heat of their formation, then cool and fade. This is the Stefan-Boltzmann law: the cooler the object, the less energy it emits (if its diameter stays the same). So it does indeed fade.

    Meanwhile, that useless science reporter Ken Croswell has a nice scoop: he’s reporting a new parallax that indicates this object is several light-years farther than first thought. See the New Scientist article for the update.

  • Chris the Canadian

    Kelly,

    Nibiru is not responsible for global warming. Nibiru isn’t even a factual brown dwarf for crying out loud. It hasn’t been ‘discovered’. That is not to say that a Brown Dwarf or something of that variety is not closer to the solar system and our sun than this latest discovery, but to pin Global Warming or Tectonic Plate Movement on a phantom star like object is preposterous and not scientific. Meaning, there is NOT A SHRED OF EVIDENCE to suggest it being plausible.

    Global warming is as a result of 3 things. 1. The earth has natural warming and cooling cycles. Throughout the anals of history and pre-history, the earths temperature and climate has changed over and over. Ice ages, warm periods, and back again. 2. The use and consumption of fossil fuels and subsequent dispersal of CO2 into the atmosphere has accelerated the earths current warming trend. This is a man made issue. Don’t blame a phantom star on a problem we created or helped to accelerate. as for the gentleman who stated that ‘Oil is not a fossil fuel’, really? I never heard that. It’s lubricant for the ‘joints’ of tectonic plates? Seriously I haven’t ever heard that theory before. Where’s the proof of that statement? 3. The destruction of the earths ‘lungs’, the great forests of the world has contributed to the CO2 issue. Trees hold a ton of Carbon and also create a lot of oxygen, so by burning and cutting down these trees we are releasing a vast amount of carbon into the air and poisoning our air by taking away the planets natural air filters.

    Those are all fact based observations which are based on evidence. The Nibiru theory is just that, a theory, with no tangible evidence to support its existence.

  • Glass Half Full Glass Half, Empty

    Personally if s*** hits the fan in 2012, I want best seats in the house to see the end of the world. I will however have a good laugh at the skeptics if something did happen, I would laugh just as equally at those who predicted that something was goin to happen and didn’t!

    CONCLUSION: Live your life here and now, enjoy yourself … have lots of food, booze and sex and if s*** hits the fan in 2012, well be sure that you made the most of the last 3 years! If the world doesn’t end, at least you can say you still lived the last 3 years HAHAHA!

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • http://loonylizard.deviantart.com/ LoonyLizard

    Ok, so IF this were to be Nibiru, *COUGH schizophrenic delusion COUGH* at 9 light years out (I’m rounding down for the most likely scenario within the whack job theory), even if it were to some how accelerate to 0.5C, the time dilation effects would extend its journey by decades, subjective Earth time. To pose any significant threat to life on Earth within my expected lifetime, it would either have to fall into one colossal wormhole that had its exit within one light-day from the Sol system (with its vector headed in our general direction) or be caught in some other distortion of time and space that violates the ordinary physics of space-time.

    Perhaps the most whackadoodle theory I’ve heard thus far is that Nibiru is actually a star made of dark matter, and that the detectable radiation it’s giving off is the decay effects of neutrinos created and destroyed by its stellar flares.

    Even if Nibiru WERE true, there’s precious little we could do about it. We can’t even figure out how to send people to Mars & back. A rogue half-star? Wave the white flag, stow away on a freighter loaded with bottled water, or storm Cheyenne Mountain for shelter – those would basically be your only options.

  • http://www.roflmop.com Jacalyn Starke

    This website doesn’t display properly on my apple iphone – you may wanna try and repair that

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