Astronomers Prove What Separates True Stars from Wannabes

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Astronomers have shown what separates real stars from the wannabes. Not in Hollywood, but out in the universe.

“When we look up and see the stars shining at night, we are seeing only part of the story,” said Trent Dupuy of the University of Texas at Austin and a graduate of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Not everything that could be a star ‘makes it,’ and figuring out why this process sometimes fails is just as important as understanding when it succeeds.”

Dupuy is the lead author of the study and is presenting his research today in a news conference at the semi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin.

He and co-author Michael Liu of the University of Hawaii have found that an object must weigh at least 70 times the mass of Jupiter in order to start hydrogen fusion and achieve star-status. If it weighs less, the star does not ignite and becomes a brown dwarf instead.

How did they reach that conclusion? The two studied 31 faint brown dwarf binaries (pairs of these objects that orbit each other) using W. M. Keck Observatory’s laser guide star adaptive optics system (LGS AO) to collect ultra-sharp images of them, and track their orbital motions using high-precision observations.

“We have been working on this since Keck Observatory’s LGS AO first revolutionized ground-based astronomy a decade ago,” said Dupuy. “Keck is the only observatory that has been doing this consistently for over 10 years. That long-running, high-quality data from the laser system is at the core of this project.”

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Rare Brown Dwarf Discovery Provides Benchmark for Future Exoplanet Research

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

A team of researchers led by Justin R. Crepp, the Freimann Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, has directly imaged a very rare type of brown dwarf that can serve as a benchmark for studying objects with masses that lie between stars and planets. Their paper on the discovery was published recently in Astrophysical Journal.

HD19467B
Direct image detection of a rare brown dwarf companion HD19467B taken at Keck Observatory. Credit: Crepp et al. 2014, ApJ
Initial data came from the TRENDS (TaRgetting bENchmark-objects with Doppler Spectroscopy) high-contrast imaging survey that uses adaptive optics and related technologies to target older, faint objects orbiting nearby stars, and precise measurements were made at the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Brown dwarfs emit little light because they do not burn hydrogen and cool rapidly. Crepp said they could provide a link between our understanding of low-mass stars and smaller objects such as planets.

HD 19467 B, a T-dwarf, is a very faint companion to a nearby Sun-like star, more than 100,000 times as dim as its host. Its distance is known precisely, and the discovery also enables researchers to place strong constraints on important factors such as its mass, orbit, age, and chemical composition without reference to the spectrum of light received from its surface.

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