Artist’s impression of one of this study’s superlative discoveries, the oldest known wide-separation white dwarf plus cold brown dwarf pair. The small white orb represents the white dwarf (the remnant of a long-dead Sun-like star), while the brown/orange foreground object is the newly discovered brown dwarf companion — Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld

Citizen Scientists discover bizarre new brown dwarfs near our Sun

Venturing into deep space might be a pipe dream for humanity, but there is so much to find in our immediate cosmic neighborhood. This was evident from the recent discovery of 95 brown dwarfs, with the help of thousands of volunteer citizen scientists. The endeavor was made possible as a result of a collaboration between professional scientists and the members of the public.

Working under the auspices of the NASA-funded citizen science project, volunteers and professional scientists came together to analyze data that comprised of trillions of pixels. The discoveries were reported in the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 — a subsidiary of the citizen science project.

Instruments used in collecting the data included: NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite, NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the facilities of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab. Follow up observations were also conducted using Mont Megantic Observatory, and Las Campanas Observatory.

Backyard Worlds is already credited with the discovery of over 1,500 stars and brown dwarfs near our solar system. Before you get any more confused with brown dwarfs, let me explain — they resemble turbulent gas giants which are too small to be a star and too large to be a planet. Appearing magenta or orange-red to the human eye if seen close up, these celestial bodies can be extremely hot.

Although the discovery of brown dwarfs is not a new phenomenon, the ones discovered in the recent study have a weird property — they are colder than the boiling point of water. Some even approach the temperature of the Earth and are cool enough to harbor water clouds. Back in 2014, the coldest-known brown dwarf, called WISE 0855, discovered using data from NASA’s WISE mission in infrared light clocked in at minus 23 degrees Celsius (or minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit).

“These cool worlds offer the opportunity for new insights into the formation and atmospheres of planets beyond the solar system. This collection of cool brown dwarfs also allows us to accurately estimate the number of free-floating worlds roaming interstellar space near the Sun.”

~ Lead Author, Aaron Meisner

Brown dwarfs have properties like low mass, low temperature, and lack of internal nuclear reactions, which makes them extremely faint and difficult to detect. That’s where a diligent worldwide network of more than 100,000 citizen scientists inspecting telescope images to identify the subtle movements of brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs give off heat in the form of infrared light, which is detectable by telescopes.

The discovery of these cold brown dwarfs provides the missing link in the classification of these cosmic objects. Understanding & profiling cosmic objects near our solar system is key to understanding our place in the universe and how galaxies, stars & planets evolved over the course of billions of years.

Co-authors of the study included 20 citizen scientists across 10 different countries. Complete Research was published in the Astrophysical Journal and is also available on the Preprint server arXiv.org.

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