Monday, April 28, 2014

There's a Frosty Brown Dwarf a Mere Seven Light Years from Earth

There's a Frosty Brown Dwarf a Mere Seven Light Years from Earth 
Friday, NASA announced the discovery of WISE J085510.83-071442.5, a brown dwarf located 7.2 light-years away. The object—which we'll abbreviate to WISE 0855–0714—has edged out the red dwarf Wolf 359 to become the fourth closest system to our Sun.

“It's very exciting to discover a new neighbor of our solar system that is so close," Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Penn State's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, said in a statement. "Given its extreme temperature, it should tell us a lot about the atmospheres of planets, which often have similarly cold temperatures.”

Luhman has been hunting for brown dwarfs for decades, and has located several of them using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer and the Spitzer Space Telescope. In fact, this isn't even the first time he's bumped our nearest neighbors back a spot in line. Just last year, he discovered a brown dwarf binary system only 6.5 light-years away, making it the third closest system to the Sun. The Luhman 16 system now bears his name.

Our nearest neighbors. Image via NASA/Penn State.

But this most recently discovered dwarf is a little different from the binary system, and not just in nomenclature. For example, the weather forecast on Luhman 16B calls for pretty consistent molten iron rain showers, whereas WISE 0855–0714 is a bonafide ice queen. In fact, it's the coldest brown dwarf ever found, with an estimated temperature of 225–260 kelvins (9 degrees Fahrenheit, or -13 degrees Celsius). The record-holders up until this point at least had the decency to remain at room temperature.

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