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Hubble’s Successor Might Finally Solve The Mystery Surrounding A Special Brown Dwarf

a brown dwarf with clouds

Artist’s conception of a brown dwarf with clouds. NASA/ESA/JPL

Quite soon, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be launched and start with its observations of the cosmos. However, the preparatory task for such mission has already begun and astronomers are excitedly expecting the possible discovery ahead. One particular group hopes it will finally find out the secrets behind brown dwarfs.

Brown dwarfs are generally regarded failed stars. Being large objects, they are about 70 times the mass of Jupiter. Although they are too big to be called a planet, they are not big enough to give out nuclear fusion in their cores and become stars accordingly. Étienne Artigau from Université de Montréal is leading researcher of a team, which is making effort to use the JWST to focus on a special brown dwarf.

This object, only 20 light-years from Earth, is known as SIMP0136. As it is also completely alone in the universe without any companion star, it will become an ideal object for observations. However, owing to the pesky effects of the atmosphere, telescopes on earth have been trying very hard to form a complete picture of the object based on its light spectrum.

As Artigau said, it was quite challenging to gather accurate spectroscopic measurements from the ground in the infrared due to variable absorption in our own atmosphere, so it was necessary to have space-based infrared observation. Besides,  Webb helped scientists to explore features, such as water absorption, because these measurements were inaccessible from the ground at this level of precision.

The purpose of this project is to make sure whether brown dwarfs form like stars, through the collapsing of gas clouds, or like planets, by accretion of material over time.

SIMP0136 is probably be the perfect object for this search. Although it looks like a brown dwarf, it appears to be much lighter, for it is only 13 times the mass of Jupiter. But it is possible that SIMP0136 is not a brown dwarf at all, most likely a rogue planet, expelled from a star system some time ago. From its spectrum variations, it has been interpreted as clouds.

In Artigau’s words, the brown dwarf SIMP0136 had the same temperature as various planets that would be observed in transit spectroscopy with Webb, and clouds were known to impact this type of measurement; their observations would allow them to have a better understanding of cloud decks in brown dwarfs and planet atmospheres in general.

Hopefully, the new observations will clarify the true nature of SIMP0136. The JWST is expected to be launched between March and June 2019.

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