An accidental discovery hints at a hidden population of cosmic objects

An accidental discovery hints at a hidden population of cosmic objects

A new study offers a tantalizing explanation for how a peculiar cosmic object called WISEA J153429.75-104303.3 – nicknamed “The Accident” – came to be. The Accident is a brown dwarf. Though they form like stars, these objects don’t have enough mass to kickstart nuclear fusion, the process that causes stars to shine. And while brown dwarfs sometimes defy characterization, astronomers have a good grasp on their general characteristics.

Or they did, until they found this one.

The Accident got its name after being discovered by sheer luck. It slipped past normal searches because it doesn’t resemble any of the just over 2,000 brown dwarfs that have been found in our galaxy so far.

As brown dwarfs age, they cool off, and their brightness in different wavelengths of light changes. It’s not unlike how some metals, when heated, go from bright white to deep red as they cool. The Accident confused scientists because it was faint in some key wavelengths, suggesting it was very cold (and old), but bright in others, indicating a higher temperature.

“This object defied all our expectations,” said Davy Kirkpatrick, an astrophysicist at IPAC at Caltech in Pasadena, California. He and his co-authors posit in their new study, appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, that The Accident might be 10 billion to 13 billion years old – at least double the median age of other known brown dwarfs. That means it would have formed when our galaxy was much younger and had a different chemical makeup. If that’s the case, there are likely many more of these ancient brown dwarfs lurking in our galactic neighborhood.

A Peculiar Profile
The Accident was first spotted by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), launched in 2009 under the moniker WISE and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Because brown dwarfs are relatively cool objects, they radiate mostly infrared light, or wavelengths longer than what the human eye can see.

To figure out how The Accident could have such seemingly contradictory properties – some suggesting it is very cold, others indicating it is much warmer – the scientists needed more information. So they observed it in additional infrared wavelengths with a ground-based telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. But the brown dwarf appeared so faint in those wavelengths, they couldn’t detect it at all, apparently confirming their suggestion that it was very cold.

They next set out to determine if the dimness resulted from The Accident being farther than expected from Earth. But that wasn’t the case, according to precise distance measurements by NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Having determined the object’s distance – about 50 light-years from Earth – the team realized that it is moving fast – about half a million miles per hour (800,000 kph). That’s much faster than all other brown dwarfs known to be at this distance from Earth, which means it has probably been careening around the galaxy for a long time, encountering massive objects that accelerate it with their gravity.

With a mound of evidence suggesting The Accident is extremely old, the researchers propose that its strange properties aren’t strange at all and that they may be a clue to its age.

When the Milky Way formed about 13.6 billion years ago, it was composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. Other elements, like carbon, formed inside stars; when the most massive stars exploded as supernovae, they scattered the elements throughout the galaxy.

Methane, composed of hydrogen and carbon, is common in most brown dwarfs that have a temperature similar to The Accident. But The Accident’s light profile suggests it contains very little methane. Like all molecules, methane absorbs specific wavelengths of light, so a methane-rich brown dwarf would be dim in those wavelengths. The Accident, by contrast, is bright in those wavelengths, which could indicate low levels of methane.

Thus, the light profile of The Accident could match that of a very old brown dwarf that formed when the galaxy was still carbon poor; very little carbon at formation means very little methane in its atmosphere today.

“It’s not a surprise to find a brown dwarf this old, but it is a surprise to find one in our backyard,” said Federico Marocco, an astrophysicist at IPAC at Caltech who led the new observations using the Keck and Hubble telescopes. “We expected that brown dwarfs this old exist, but we also expected them to be incredibly rare. The chance of finding one so close to the solar system could be a lucky coincidence, or it tells us that they’re more common than we thought.”

A Lucky Accident
To find more ancient brown dwarfs like The Accident – if they’re out there – researchers might have to change how they search for these objects.

The Accident was discovered by citizen scientist Dan Caselden, who was using an online program he built to find brown dwarfs in NEOWISE data. The sky is full of objects that radiate infrared light; by and large, these objects appear to remain fixed in the sky, due to their great distance from Earth. But because brown dwarfs are so faint, they are visible only when they’re relatively close to Earth, and that means scientists can observe them moving across the sky over months or years. (NEOWISE maps the entire sky about once every six months.)

Caselden’s program attempted to remove the stationary infrared objects (like distant stars) from the NEOWISE maps and highlight moving objects that had similar characteristics to known brown dwarfs. He was looking at one such brown dwarf candidate when he spotted another, much fainter object moving quickly across the screen. This would turn out to be WISEA J153429.75-104303.3, which hadn’t been highlighted because it did not match the program’s profile of a brown dwarf. Caselden caught it by accident.

“This discovery is telling us that there’s more variety in brown dwarf compositions than we’ve seen so far,” said Kirkpatrick. “There are likely more weird ones out there, and we need to think about how to look for them.”

Source: RIA NovostiThe Enigmatic Brown Dwarf WISEA J153429.75-104303.3 (a.k.a. “The Accident”)

News Related

OTHER NEWS

Space Babes

Houston, we have a problem! Love and sex need to happen in space if we hope to travel long distances and become an interplanetary species, but space organizations are not ... Read more »

Two astronauts return to ISS after 7-Hour Spacewalk

Two international astronauts, Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and France’s Thomas Pesquet have returned safely to the International Space Station (ISS) after completing a spacewalk that spanned nearly seven hours, NASA said. ... Read more »

Better weather forecasting through satellite isotope data assimilation

As the global climate continues to change and extreme weather events increasingly threaten regions all over the world, accurate weather forecasting is becoming more important than ever. In a new ... Read more »

Quasars as Cosmic Standard Candles

In 1929, Edwin Hubble published observations that galaxies’ distances and velocities are correlated, with the distances determined using their Cepheid stars. Harvard astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt had discovered that a ... Read more »

Adaptable optical communications to facilitate future low-earth orbit networks

As government and commercial small-satellite constellations continue to proliferate in low-earth orbit (LEO), DARPA has unveiled a new effort to create a novel optical communications terminal to interconnect diverse constellations ... Read more »

New ocean temperature data help scientists make their hot predictions

We’ve heard that rising temperatures will lead to rising sea levels, but what many may not realise is that most of the increase in energy in the climate system is ... Read more »

A gem of a lab will bring the world of quantum physics into the light

The novel design for a next-generation diamond sensor with capabilities that range from producing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of single molecules to detecting slight anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic field ... Read more »

Modern snakes evolved from a few survivors of dino-killing asteroid

A new study suggests that all living snakes evolved from a handful of species that survived the giant asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other living things ... Read more »

Scientists explore method to produce composites with 'shape memory'

Skoltech researchers have investigated a promising type of composite materials in terms of their shape memory behavior: how they resume their original shape following deformation if exposed to the right ... Read more »

Jet stream changes could amplify weather extremes by 2060s

New research provides insights into how the position and intensity of the North Atlantic jet stream has changed during the past 1,250 years. The findings suggest that the position of ... Read more »

TROPICS pathfinder satellite produces global first light images and captures Hurricane Ida

On August 8, NASA’s TROPICS Pathfinder satellite captured global first light images as well as a look inside the structure of Hurricane Ida before and after it made landfall. The ... Read more »

New research takes us closer to figuring out supermassive black holes

Galaxies host supermassive black holes, which weigh millions to billions times more than our Sun. When galaxies collide, pairs of supermassive black holes at their centres also lie on the ... Read more »

Rerun of supernova blast expected to appear in 2037

It’s challenging to make predictions, especially in astronomy. There are however, a few forecasts astronomers can depend on, such as the timing of upcoming lunar and solar eclipses and the ... Read more »

SpaceX launches Starlink satellites into orbit from West Coast

Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched a stack of Starlink satellites into space Monday night, the first such launch since May. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off through a cloud of ... Read more »

Ballistic air guns and mock moon rocks aid in search for durable space fabrics

The surface of the Moon is a harsh environment with no air, low gravity, dust, and micrometeorites-tiny rocks or metal particles-flying faster than 22,000 mph. These conditions can pose a ... Read more »

CuPID CubeSat will get new perspective on Sun-Earth boundary

When you help build a satellite the size of a shoebox, you learn pretty much everything about it, says Emil Atz, a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Boston University. ... Read more »

TPY-4 Radar earns official US Government Designation

As the world’s most capable and flexible ground based multi-function long-range radar, Lockheed Martin’s TPY-4 has received its official U.S. Government nomenclature – AN/TPY-4(V)1 – officially marking the radar’s maturity ... Read more »

China launches Zhongxing-9B satellite

China successfully launched a new direct broadcast satellite (DBS) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province Thursday. The satellite, Zhongxing-9B, was launched at 7:50 p.m. (Beijing ... Read more »

DLR agrees cooperation with Spanish start-up Pangea Aerospace

The German Federal Government is turning to efficient start-ups in its quest to ensure independent and competitive access to space for Europe. With their ideas and vision, they can accelerate ... Read more »

Winds delay South Australian launch attempt

UPDATE: Friday’s launch attempt was delayed due to strong upper winds. The Australian Government has given regulatory approval for a commercial rocket launch to take place from a newly licensed ... Read more »

SpaceX to raise bar for space tourism with Inspiration4 launch

SpaceX plans to reach new heights, literally, for space tourism Wednesday by launching the Inspiration4 mission from Florida — the first all-private spaceflight to orbit the Earth. Two men and ... Read more »

Next generation of Orion spacecraft in production for future Artemis missions

Over the next decade, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts during Artemis missions to the Moon to help prepare for human missions to Mars. Work on the spacecraft for Artemis ... Read more »

Orbit MPT30-Ku 12" Airborne SATCOM Terminal receives Intelsat FlexAir for government qualification

Orbit Communication Systems Ltd. reports that the Orbit MPT-30-Ku multi-purpose terminal (MPT) has received full qualification for use with the Intelsat FlexAir for Government service offering. FlexAir is a global ... Read more »

The beach is back: French Riviera marsh ditches seawalls for sand

To save one of the last wetlands on the French Riviera from rising sea levels, conservationists have taken the unusual step of removing its protective seawalls. Instead, they have let ... Read more »

Hughes and OneWeb announce agreements for low earth Orbit satellite service in US and India

Hughes Network Systems, LLC (HUGHES), an innovator in satellite and multi-transport technologies and networks for 50 years, and OneWeb, the low Earth orbit satellite communications company, has announced that they ... Read more »

Groundbreaking technique yields important new details on possible 'fifth force'

A group of researchers have used a groundbreaking new technique to reveal previously unrecognized properties of technologically crucial silicon crystals and uncovered new information about an important subatomic particle and ... Read more »

Dates set for Space Station change of command as Franco-German relations awarded Media prize

The dates have been set for ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet’s upcoming command of the International Space Station, as ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer prepares to join him on board. Thomas, who ... Read more »

Allen Coral Atlas completes map of the world's coral reefs using satellite imagery

The Allen Coral Atlas partners has announced that after three years, 450+ research teams and counting, and two million satellite images, the habitat mapping of the world’s shallow coral reefs ... Read more »

Some coral reefs are keeping pace with ocean warming

Some coral communities are becoming more heat tolerant as ocean temperatures rise, offering hope for corals in a changing climate. After a series of marine heatwaves hit the Phoenix Islands ... Read more »

Researchers reveal a novel metal where electrons flow with fluid-like dynamics

A team of researchers from Boston College has created a new metallic specimen where the motion of electrons flows in the same way water flows in a pipe – fundamentally ... Read more »

Space junk traffic dangers to be tackled by first-of-its-kind research centre in UK

New ways of tackling the threat that space junk in our skies poses are being explored by University of Warwick scientists, as they pioneer new research that could help the ... Read more »

Milky Way is not homogeneous

In order to better understand the history and evolution of the Milky Way, astronomers are studying the composition of the gases and metals that make up an important part of ... Read more »

Safeguarding clean water for spaceflight missions

By all appearances, the universe beyond Earth is a vast, lonely, and sterile space. Yet, wherever humans may travel, an abundance of microbial life will follow. In a first study ... Read more »

China develops sustainable development satellite

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has developed a satellite for pursuing sustainable development. The satellite, SDGSAT-1, has already passed the round-the-clock and multi-load coordinated observation. It is expected to ... Read more »

Space industry grapples with COVID-19-related oxygen fuel shortage

A pandemic-related shortage of a key rocket propellant, liquid oxygen, could force rocket launches to be postponed in coming months, possibly delaying important scientific and national defense missions, industry observers ... Read more »

Gaofen 5-02 satellite launched from Taiyuan

China launched the Gaofen 5-02 Earth-observation satellite on Tuesday morning at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province, according to the China National Space Administration. The administration said the ... Read more »

Largest virtual universe free for anyone to explore

Forget about online games that promise you a “whole world” to explore. An international team of researchers has generated an entire virtual UNIVERSE, and made it freely available on the ... Read more »

Laser solid-phase synthesis of single atom catalysts

Laser fabrication of nanoparticles offers a powerful and flexible alternative to the purely chemical approaches. In recent years, laser synthesized precious metal nanoparticles are becoming increasingly important in catalysis due ... Read more »

Kleos secures A$12.6 million to grow constellation

Kleos Space S.A, a space-powered Radio Frequency Reconnaissance data-as-a- service (DaaS) company, has secured A$12.6 million (equivalent to 9.3 million USD) from new and existing institutional and sophisticated investors in ... Read more »

Eutelsat completes OneWeb equity investment

Eutelsat Communications confirms the closing of its $550m equity investment in OneWeb announced on April 27, 2021. Subject to completion of the subsequently announced investments in OneWeb by Bharti and ... Read more »