Citizen scientists help astronomers find a brown dwarf

Hyperaxion Jun 2, 2020

Considered an intermediary between gas giants and the smallest stars, the object is surrounded by a disk of debris with the potential to form planets.

With the help of amateur astronomers, a team led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, identified a brown dwarf surrounded by a disk of debris with the potential to form planets 332 light-years from Earth. The researchers presented the discovery at the virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which takes place this week.

Brown dwarfs are the “middle child” of astronomy, as they are too big to be planets, but not big enough to be stars. According to experts, they form from the gravitational collapse of gas and dust, but, instead of condensing into a hot and active core like stars, they are much more stable. This is also why these objects are considered the “missing link” between gas giants and the smallest stars.

Amateur astronomers help scientists find a brown dwarf
W1200-7845. (Credit: NASA/William Pendril).

The disk

Stars have a disk composed of gases and residual dust from their formation – material that, in turn, can collide and accumulate, forming planets. This disk has already been observed in some brown dwarfs.

The newly discovered object was named W1200-7845, is only 3.7 million years old, and is 332 light-years from Earth. The researchers believe that observations in the vicinity could provide details about the disk that exists around the brown dwarf.

The group plans to capture more images of the W1200-7845 with other telescopes, such as ALMA, in Chile, made up of 66 huge radio antennas that function as a powerful telescope to observe the universe through radio and infrared waves. According to the researchers, in this range and precision, they expect to see the brown dwarf’s own disc, to measure its mass and radius.

“A disk’s mass just tells you how much stuff is in the disk, which would tell us if planet formation happens around these systems, and what sorts of planets you’d be able to produce,” explained Steven Silverberg, co-author of the research, in a statement. “You could also use that data to determine what kinds of gas are in the system which would tell you about the disk’s composition.”

The discovery

The discovery was made with the help of users of Diskdetective.org, a website that provides images of the same object in space, taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (Wise). The system allows amateur astronomers to classify an object based on certain criteria.

According to Silverberg, from the analysis of the amateurs, a scientific team evaluates the information and confirms or discards the users’ hypothesis. “We have multiple citizen scientists look at each object and give their own independent opinion, and trust the wisdom of the crowd to decide what things are probably galaxies and what things are probably stars with disks around them,” explained Silverberg.

Related topics:

Brown dwarf Planets Stars

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