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JPL: Brown Dwarfs Closer Than First Thought

September 1, 2011

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Artist’s rendering of size comparisons.

While called dwarf, a dwarf’s size dwarfs Earth. Credit Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers have hunted the skies for Y dwarfs, the coldest members of the brown dwarf family, without success until data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer revealed the faint glow of six such orbs within a distance of 40 light years from our sun. Unlike stars that burn steadily for billions of years, Y dwarfs fade and cool due to their low mass and inability to fuse atoms at their cores. These dwarfs hold a temperature about the same as a human body.

Astronomers study brown dwarfs in order to better comprehend how stars form and to understand the atmospheres of planets outside of our solar system.

The WISE telescope returned the most advanced infrared study of the sky to date, scanning the entire sky about 1.5 times between January 2010 and February 2011. Scientists also used ground-based telescopes, the Hubble Telescope, and the Spitzer Space Telescope to further investigate WISE’s findings. The data collected has revealed 100 new brown dwarfs, including the coldest on record at approximately 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Finding brown dwarfs near our sun is like discovering there’s a hidden house on your block that you didn’t know about,” said Michael Cushing, a WISE team member at JPL, “It’s thrilling to me to know we’ve got neighbors out there yet to be discovered. With WISE, we may even find a brown dwarf closer to us than our closest known star.”

Visit NASA’s WISE webpage to learn more about the project and brown dwarfs.

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