NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has eyed its first cool brown dwarf: a tiny, ultra-cold star floating all alone in space.
WISE team are already accumulating a quarry of brown dwarf candidates similar to this one. Brown dwarfs have masses somewhere between those of a star and a planet. They start out like stars as collapsing balls of gas, but they lack the mass to fuse atoms together at their core and shine with starlight. As time goes on, these lightweights cool off, until they can only be seen in infrared light. There could be many such objects lurking in the neighborhood of our sun, but astronomers know of only a handful so far. WISE is expected to find hundreds, including the coolest and closest of all.
WISE’s new brown dwarf is named WISEPC J045853.90+643451.9 for its location in the sky. It is estimated to be 18 to 30 light-years away and is one of the coolest brown dwarfs known, with a temperature of about 600 Kelvin, or 620 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s downright chilly as far as stars go. The fact that this brown dwarf jumped out of the data so easily and so quickly — it was spotted 57 days into the survey mission — indicates that WISE will discover many, many more. The discovery was confirmed by follow-up observations at the University of Virginia’s Fan Mountain telescope, the Large Binocular Telescope in southeastern Arizona, and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The results are in press at the Astrophysical Journal.