New Looks at Brown Dwarfs

by Paul Gilster on June 13, 2017

Small stars are fascinating because of their sheer ubiquity. Some estimates for the fraction of red dwarfs in the galaxy go as high as 80 percent, meaning the planets around such stars are going to be the most common venues for possible life. For a time, I thought brown dwarfs would be shown to be even more numerous, but the WISE [Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] data have indicated otherwise (see Brown Dwarfs Sparser than Expected).

Hopes for a brown dwarf closer than the Alpha Centauri stars (and thus a convenient intermediary destination for future probes) have dwindled down to nothing, but we do have interesting systems like Luhman 16 AB, the third closest system to the Sun, captured in the image below via a ‘stack’ of twelve images courtesy of the Hubble instrument. The work is from Luigi Bedin (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, Italy) and team, helping us with orbital parameters of the pair and demonstrating that there is no third companion.


Image: Luhman 16 AB as seen by Hubble in this stack of images. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Bedin et al.

We’ll keep an eye on this interesting system given its proximity. Discovered in WISE data in 2013, the brown dwarfs are separated by about 3 AU in a binary that is 6.5 light years away. Both are of about 30 Jupiter masses. Bedin and colleagues can find no exoplanets of Neptune mass or greater with a period of between one and two years. Future Hubble observations have already been approved for August of next year. From the paper:

We plan to focus on the trailed HST images already collected and those planned for August 2018, to further improve the astrometric precision and search exoplanets down to few Earth masses. Follow-up observations with the VLT/CRIRES+ instrument will provide accurate radial velocity data, an important complement to our 2-D astrometric data, as it will provide the missed component necessary for the complete tri-dimensional picture of the kinematic in the system. In addition, the Gaia DR2 dataset will provide absolute motions, positions, and distances of several stars in the field.

These observations may be able to rule out (or detect) the presence of smaller planets. If they’re there, we can expect further follow-up work with the James Webb Space Telescope as well as the Extremely Large Telescope and other assets. This system is tantalizingly close.

A Brown Dwarf Eclipsing Binary

Kepler is also giving us new information about brown dwarfs, in this case finding one orbiting a white dwarf with an orbital period of a scant 71.2 minutes. The white dwarf is WD1202-024, identified by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and originally thought to be an isolated star. We learn instead, via data from campaign 10 of the K2 mission (the spacecraft’s extended mission following its reaction wheel problems) that we’re seeing a dramatic lightcurve from a binary. The Kepler data were followed up by five different ground-based telescopes whose combined work revealed that the white dwarf has a mass about 40 percent that of the Sun, while the brown dwarf is equivalent to about 67 Jupiter masses.


Image: K2 lightcurve (black jagged curve) folded about a period of 71.23 minutes. The red curve represents a simple geometrical model with a 5-minute long total eclipse and a 9% contribution to emulate an illumination effect on the companion star. The blue curve is the fit to the model based on the length of the K2 observations. Credit: Rappaport et al.

The work on WD1202-024 was announced by Lorne Nelson (Bishop’s University, Quebec) at the semi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin (TX), and you can click here for a portion of the press conference at the meeting that included discussion of the system. Saul Rappaport (MIT) and Andrew Vanderburg (Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) found the unusual lightcurve among 28,000 K2 targets.

What we are seeing appears to be a white dwarf being eclipsed by a much cooler brown dwarf in a system that is viewed nearly edge-on from our perspective. The team’s computer models showed that the infant binary, having formed about three billion years ago, would have consisted of a 1.25 solar mass star and a brown dwarf in a 150 day orbit. The star expanded over time to become a red giant, engulfing the brown dwarf about 50 million years ago. Nelson explains the process, one which the brown dwarf survived (thus far) relatively intact:

“It is similar to an egg-beater effect. The brown dwarf spirals in towards the center of the red giant and causes most of the mass of the red giant to be lifted off of the core and to be expelled. The result is a brown dwarf in an extraordinarily tight, short-period orbit with the hot helium core of the giant. That core then cools and becomes the white dwarf that we observe today.”

What should emerge out of all this, in about 250 million years or even less, is that the separation of the white and brown dwarf will dwindle until the brown dwarf will begin to be consumed by the star, making the binary into a cataclysmic variable (CV) feeding off accretion from the disk of matter surrounding the white dwarf. At the AAS meeting, Nelson referred to this system as the shortest period pre-cataclysmic variable ever discovered.

The paper is Rappaport et al., “”WD 1202-024: The Shortest-Period Pre-Cataclysmic Variable,” submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint). The Bedin paper is “Hubble Space Telescope astrometry of the closest brown dwarf binary system — I. Overview and improved orbit,” accepted at Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint).


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

P June 13, 2017 at 18:33

Of course none of this rules out smaller planets around either or both components. Is HARPS South doing work on this system? Its probably pretty faint for precise radial velocity work…



Mark Zambelli June 15, 2017 at 12:24

It’s sobering to visualize the relative sizes of these two… the WD, at 40% solar mass, would be roughly half as big again as the Earth and the Brown Dwarf would be maybe 15% larger than Jupiter! (ignoring any ‘puffiness’ induced by the heat from the WD)… and the BD is whipping around the White Dwarf… amazing.


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