Astronomers find extreme weather on an alien world

Alternate title: How long before Bill McKibben says: this brown dwarf has a middle name, and it’s global warming.

Astronomers have observed extreme brightness changes on a nearby brown dwarf that may indicate a storm grander than any seen yet on a planet. This finding could new shed light on the atmospheres and weather on extra-solar planets. Credit: Art by Jon Lomberg

Cosmic oddball may harbor a gigantic storm

TORONTO, ON – A University of Toronto-led team of astronomers has observed extreme brightness changes on a nearby brown dwarf that may indicate a storm grander than any seen yet on a planet. Because old brown dwarfs and giant planets have similar atmospheres, this finding could shed new light on weather phenomena of extra-solar planets.

As part of a large survey of nearby brown dwarfs – objects that occupy the mass gap between dwarf stars and giant planets – the scientists used an infrared camera on the 2.5m telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile to capture repeated images of a brown dwarf dubbed 2MASS J21392676+0220226, or 2MASS 2139 for short, over several hours. In that short time span, they recorded the largest variations in brightness ever seen on a cool brown dwarf.

“We found that our target’s brightness changed by a whopping 30 per cent in just under eight hours,” said PhD candidate Jacqueline Radigan, lead author of a paper to be presented this week at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. “The best explanation is that brighter and darker patches of its atmosphere are coming into our view as the brown dwarf spins on its axis,” said Radigan.

“We might be looking at a gigantic storm raging on this brown dwarf, perhaps a grander version of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter in our own solar system, or we may be seeing the hotter, deeper layers of its atmosphere through big holes in the cloud deck,” said co-author Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and author of the recent book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System.

According to theoretical models, clouds form in brown dwarf and giant planet atmospheres when tiny dust grains made of silicates and metals condense. The depth and profile of 2MASS 2139’s brightness variations changed over weeks and months, suggesting that cloud patterns in its atmosphere are evolving with time.

“Measuring how quickly cloud features change in brown dwarf atmospheres may allow us to infer atmospheric wind speeds eventually and teach us about how winds are generated in brown dwarf and planetary atmospheres,” Radigan added.

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The paper describing the findings, titled “High Amplitude, Periodic Variability of a Cool Brown Dwarf: Evidence for Patchy, High-Contrast Cloud Features”, is available online now at http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/~radigan/weather/bdweather.pdf.

Other co-authors of this work are David Lafrenière and Étienne Artigau at the Université de Montreal, Didier Saumon at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Mark Marely at NASA Ames Research Center.

The research was supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship awarded to Radigan, and a Research Tools and Instrumentation grant, a Discovery grant, a Steacie Fellowship and the Canada Research Chairs program, all awarded to Jayawardhana from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Note to media: To see an artist’s impression associated with this release, please visit http://www.artsci.utoronto.ca/main/media-releases/storm-on-a-nearby-brown-dwarf.

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31 Responses to Astronomers find extreme weather on an alien world

  1. bushbunny says:

    Where is this planetoid? I notice the picture is described as ‘art’. Weather on Mars has been observed too and Jupiter of course. One article years ago was saying some planets in our solar
    system were heating up too. Anyone know more.

  2. Wil says:

    Glad I live on earth – however here in oil sands country its minus 1C tonight. This is really, really early to have minus weather of this type – this points the way to a bitterly cold winter here in western Canada.

  3. bushbunny says:

    Well Wil, Sept 12 @ 9.40 pm. Keep warm and safe.

  4. Mike Bromley the Canucklehead says:

    We could invite McKibben up to bring some hot air. Still a balmy 8C here in Calgary

  5. Or could it be a tidally-locked planet, active the way Io is active, explaining the variations, and the variations over time as vulcanism changes.

  6. Jim Masterson says:

    >>
    bushbunny says:
    September 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Where is this planetoid?
    <<

    It’s an object in the 2MASS catalog. The official designation is 2MASS J21392676+0220226. The location is right ascension 21h 39m 26.7696s and declination 2°20’22.6968”. That places it near the Pegasus constellation or a little less than 2° north of the globular cluster M2.

    It’s distance is somewhere between 9.9 parsecs and 18.8 parsecs (or 32.3 and 61.3 light years).

    It’s not really a planetoid. It’s a brown dwarf which makes it too large to be a planet and too small to be a star.

    Jim

  7. One can almost see the paper now … rush out in 18 days … “Huge increase in extreme weather events now seen on Earth (like planets, when averaged by observation date)

  8. brothersmartmouth says:

    Are solar cycles determining who wins the 1000 carbon credit framed award.
    Waiting!?!

  9. James Fosser says:

    Jim Masterson says:
    September 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm.
    Hi Jim. You say that its distance is is somewhere between 9.9 parsecs and 18.8 parsecs (or 32.3 and 61.3 light years).The difference between 32.3 and 61.3 is 29, so if we allow that difference to be under than the 32.3 rather than above, it means that this brown drwarf could be on our doorstep at just 3.3 light years. That would make it the nearest star apart from the sun and Nemesis (if the brown dwarf was a little bit more glowy!).

  10. Robinson says:

    This is becoming a bit of a joke. There’s absolutely no way you can infer anything whatsoever with such thin data, about an object so far away.

  11. ozspeaksup says:

    how weird..I just found a comment and link at Iceagaenow.info.
    the planetary events mentioned..==================
    R. de Haan says:
    September 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    This will help

    ========================================================
    Have a dekko:-)

  12. John G says:

    Could just be global nuclear war.

  13. JimBob says:

    Robinson says: This is becoming a bit of a joke. There’s absolutely no way you can infer anything whatsoever with such thin data, about an object so far away.

    I tend to agree. Astronomers are making some really impressive discoveries but the press releases, at least, are pushing way beyond the actual data. Stories about detected planets with the potential for life, etc. are a bit of a stretch from the original radial velocity data.

  14. Sean Peake says:

    [snip - off color comment]

  15. aim31 says:

    I think it high time for the world to believe more in what the Bible says about the end.

  16. Nuke Nemesis says:

    Did Al Gore visit this planet recently?

  17. Tim Minchin says:

    I noticed Co2 fell .1 ppm

  18. mkelly says:

    “As part of a large survey of nearby brown dwarfs – objects that occupy the mass gap between dwarf stars and giant planets – the scientists used an infrared camera on the 2.5m telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile…”

    Anyone know what the lenses are made of on the camera or the telescope? If a mirror is used what the mirror is made of?

  19. Jim Masterson says:

    >>
    James Fosser says:
    September 13, 2011 at 12:35 am

    The difference between 32.3 and 61.3 is 29, so if we allow that difference to be under than the 32.3 rather than above, it means that this brown drwarf could be on our doorstep at just 3.3 light years. That would make it the nearest star apart from the sun and Nemesis (if the brown dwarf was a little bit more glowy!).
    <<

    The different values for the distance are due to different assumptions made on the estimates of the true brightness. If we’re talking about a binary object then the distance would be much greater. I’ve already given the lowest value for the error. The object couldn’t be Nemesis.

    Anthony’s document link gives the distances. One estimate is from 9.9 to 14.4 parsecs. Another is from 11.9 to 17.4 parsecs. And you’ll have to read Looper et al. (2008) to get their error range for the 18.8 parsec value.

    If you want a closer brown dwarf, try Epsilon Indi. There are two brown dwarfs circling that K5V star, and it’s only about 12 light-years away.

    Jim

  20. Christopher Simpson says:

    Wil says:
    September 12, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    You’re in the oil sands area? I wonder if you know a Michael Connely?

  21. Hoser says:

    James Fosser says:
    September 13, 2011 at 12:35 am

    For objects that close, you can estimate the distance by parallax. Just wait 6 months.

    A brown dwarf isn’t supposed to have any fusion process the way a star does. Is there a sharp distinction? Is there any chance that a brown dwarf on the larger end of the mass distribution might be able to muster up some fusion sporadically? I imagine that could result in some significant brightness changes and extreme “weather”.

  22. mark wagner says:

    Eh.

    I’m a CPA, and I’m constantly amazed at how much stuff people just make up. Especially this time of year.

    Someone sees a pixel twinkle on his monitor and suddenly we’re discussing atmospheric variation, gigantic storms, holes in cloud decks, silicates and inferred wind speeds.

    I call BS.

    Nobody has actually seen anything. It’s all made up. A fantasy in the mind of a researcher based on nothing more than a pixel twinkle.

    Maybe I’ve just had a bad day.

  23. meemoe_uk says:

    Brown dwarves aren’t classed as planets \ worlds. As far as I can see from a brief look at the report, this brown dwarf is not orbiting a star, i.e. it’s a solitary object in space.
    The authors used ground based telescope data, which has a prob with sky noise, they’ve used tricks to remove this noise. Space telescope data is much better, clean of sky noise. If this news really is worth something, NASA \ ESA will point a space telescope at this brown dwarf and see what the fuss is about.

    It’s plausible that a brown dwarf has an infra red hot layer, partially obscured by a varible cool clouds layer which also allow for surface features such as a ‘hot red spot’.

    >Is there any chance that a brown dwarf on the larger end of the mass distribution might be able to muster up some fusion sporadically?
    Yes kinda. The distinction between star and brown dwarf is ‘shades of grey’, BDs on the cusp of star mass could experience ‘hydrogen flashes’ ( fusion ) in their degenerate cores, although we’d call them stars while they did this and BDs while they didn’t. We don’t need to invoke this possibilty to explain2MASS 2139 behaviour though.

  24. Roy Tucker says:

    The larger brown dwarves can fuse some of the easy stuff like lithium, helium-3, and deuterium but that doesn’t last long or produce much energy. You’ll just see that those things are depleted in the composition.

  25. meemoe_uk says:

    http://uk.news.yahoo.com/planet-could-support-life-005603665.html

    2nd exoplanet capable of supporting ‘life as we know it’ found.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HD_85512_b

    The wiki page for this 2nd exo-earth is 2 weeks old as of 13th Sept 2011, and has been under pretty much constant revision so far.

  26. Hoser says:

    meemoe_uk says:
    September 13, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Roy Tucker says:
    September 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks guys. Some weak fusion seemed reasonable. Just wondered if anyone had some data or insight. Very cool.

  27. Greg Cavanagh says:

    The story seems ridiculous.

    The object is an old dead star. It is unlikely to have clouds forming on it. It may be reflecting light from another object, but this seems unlikely.

    Since its light intensity increased by 30% suddenly, I would be guessing a low energy form of planetary nebular, or a rotational wobble which brought its axis into alignment with the earth and showered us with some radiation.

    But clouds and storms causing brightness are a real stretch.

  28. bushbunny says:

    This video is very good. I like the warming oceans from the sun at the end. What about submarine volcanoes eh.

  29. the_Butcher says:

    Now we know Al’s birthplace.

  30. meemoe_uk says:

    the HARPS team annouced sixteen new super earths found.

    http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Latest_Exoplanet_Haul_Includes_Super_Earth_At_Habitat_Zone_Edge_999.html

    Looks like the vast harvest of planets promised by the new breed of exo-planet specialist telescopes is being realised. Loads more expected in coming years. Don’t know if mass-media report is rooted in a different report to the other mass-media habitiable super earth report.

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