Snow White and the Seven New Confirmed Brown Dwarfs

It is now winter here in the northern hemisphere, and we’re expecting snow on Friday in Washington, DC.  But fear of snow doesn’t stop us from going observing…and observing we have been!   Jonathan Gagne returned from his last trip to the telescope with spectra of nine of our brown dwarf candidates—and seven of them are now bonafide brown dwarfs.  That brings the total number of brown dwarfs discovered by the project to eight, when you add in our first confirmed brown dwarf from earlier this year.  Thanks to Ellie and Eileen for helping with the observations, which they performed using the Folded-port InfraRed Echellette spectrometer prism on the Magellan telescope!  And a big congratulations to Sam Goodman, Les Hamlet, Guillaume Colin and Dan Caselden for submitting these candidates that are now confirmed!

The spectral types of the new brown dwarfs are: T0,T2.8, T5, T6, T6.5, and two T8s.  (WISEA 1101+5400, which we discovered earlier, is a T5.5).  Curious how we tell the spectral type from the spectrum?  We make plots like this one, below.  The black curve is one of the new spectra from Magellan, and the colored lines are other brown dwarfs with known spectral types, ranging from  T4 to T8.  Which one do you think matches best?

BYW_J004143.14-401924.3_tc_1 cropped

Yes, it’s a T8, and it’s currently the coolest brown dwarf we have found with Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, with a temperature of around 750 Kelvin (about 890 degrees Farenheit). The other two objects turned out to be cool subdwarfs, a kind of star that is poor in iron and other metals, suggesting it formed before the most recent generations of stars enriched the galaxy with these metals.  Those are poorly understood and interesting in their own right.

This new batch of confirmed brown dwarfs contained a few surprises for use. Three of them are strangely bright in the K band; we’re not sure how to interpret that yet.  Also, one of the brown dwarfs initially seemed like it might be a member of the AB Doradus moving group, based on its proper motion.  Its spectrum looks very similar to that of GU Psc b, a planetary-mass T dwarf in that AB moving group.  But Jonathan took a higher resolution spectrum of it, and the new spectrum showed that our brown dwarf wasn’t in the moving group after all.  Close call!

This new batch is still just the beginning for our follow-up program. First, we have  half a night on the TripleSpec instrument on the ARC 3.5 meter at the Apache Point Observatory on January 6, thanks to a proposal led by Katelyn Allers.  Then, we have two nights using the ARCoIRIS spectrograph on the Victor Blanco 4 meter telescope coming up on March 1+2 thanks to a proposal by Jackie Faherty. By the way, our sister citizen science project, Disk Detective, also won observing time on ARCoIRIS, for April 1+2 to follow up debris disk candidates, so we might do some trading between the two projects. And we have two more proposals for observing time still pending—and a list of now 337 brown dwarf candidates to follow up this winter and beyond.

So stay tuned—and have a super holiday, wherever your backyard may be!  (And yes indeed, “brown dwarfs” is not spelled like “dwarves”.)

–Marc

 

 

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Our First Paper: the Discovery of Brown Dwarf WISEA 1101+5400

Our first paper was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Volume 841, Number 2 on May 24.   Hooray!!   (It may be easier to read here.)

The paper announces the discovery of our first brown dwarf, shows a spectrum we took of the brown dwarf, and describes the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project. There’s a press release from the American Museum of Natural History, a nice NPR story about it featuring Rosa Castro, and several other news stories.

Of course, this paper is already out-of-date.  In the time it took to write the paper, you’ve discovered at least twelve more good brown dwarf candidates.  And we used those discoveries to make an even better estimate of the sensitivity of our search than the one that appears in the paper. But let’s talk more about the paper and our first discovery, a source called WISEA 1101+5400 which we now know is a real brown dwarf, spectral type T5.5.   Here is WISEA 1101+5400’s flipbook.

You may recall that shortly after launch, we were all excited about a faint dipole/mover, which Bob Fletcher had flagged on talk and Tamara Stajic reported on the Think-You’ve-Got-One form.  That’s WISEA 1101+5400.  A few weeks later, science team member Jackie Faherty nabbed a spectrum of it using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility.  Here’s a nice plot of the spectrum, created by science team member Joe Filippazzo comparing the our object’s spectrum (black) to the spectrum of another T5.5 brown dwarf (red).  It’s a great match! The extra wiggles in our spectrum are simply noise.

Figure3.cropped

The quality of the match demonstrates that WISEA 1101+5400 is indeed a brown dwarf, and tells us that its temperature is in the range 900-1500 Kelvin (1200 – 2200 degrees Fahrenheit).  We can tell the temperature range by looking at what molecules show up in the spectrum.  The spectrum shows features associated with water, methane, iron hydride, potassium, and molecular hydrogen, labelled above.  If the brown dwarf were hotter or cooler, the relative sizes of the dips in the spectrum from each molecule would be different.

Knowing the brown dwarf’s spectral type also teaches us roughly how bright it is, intrinsically.  And since we know that the brightness of an astronomical object falls off as the inverse distance to it, squared, we can compare our images of WISEA 1101+5400 to those of other brown dwarfs to estimate its distance:  roughly 34 parsecs or about 111 light years.  For comparison, the closest known brown dwarf is the binary Luhman 16AB at 6.59 light years.

So what does this discovery mean for our understanding of brown dwarfs?  Well, there are already a few hundred T dwarfs known–and this new one turns out to be somewhat run-of-the mill.  It’s not super cool, and it’s not in a moving group, for example.  Its infrared colors are close to the average colors for brown dwarfs with this spectral type.  So we haven’t shattered any paradigms or broken any records with this object just yet.

But the discovery is a dramatic proof-of-concept.  Just the fact that we found it, only six days after launch, shows that we’re on the right track toward lots more discoveries.  Also, Zooniverse founder Chris Lintott tells me that our paper now holds the record for fastest publication from a Zooniverse project.   How cool is that?

This is a moment to celebrate.  Congratulations to us!!   Let’s make some more discoveries and write some more papers together.

Marc

We’re up to twelve brown dwarf candidates now, plus one real verified brown dwarf!

Hey everyone!  It’s proposal season here at NASA.  Every spring, NASA offers astronomers opportunities to apply for grant funding to do their research, and we’ve been busy taking advantage of that, writing proposals.

In the meantime, you’ve been hard at work, discovering stuff.  We’re up to twelve brown dwarf candidates now plus one real verified brown dwarf.  Holy smoke!  We can estimate their spectral types based on their relative flux in the WISE 1 and WISE 2 bands (3.5 and 4.6 microns), and it looks like we have 7 new candidate L dwarfs and five new candidate T dwarfs. We’re going to try to get spectra for as many of these as we can.

In the meantime, did I mention we’ve been writing proposals? Well in a proposal, you try to make predictions about what you’re going to be able to learn or discover. You also try to show how your work compares to other work in the field. So we started by taking all thirteen objects and putting them on a plot, showing their proper motions and magnitudes in the WISE 2  (W2) band. Those are the red stars on the plot below, which was made by science team member Jonathan Gagne.

PM_relW2_BYW

Then, as you can see, we plotted lots of other interesting stuff on here.   For starters, we did our best to add all the brown dwarfs that were previously known.  The little blue dots show every other brown dwarf in this database, which is every brown dwarf we could find in the literature.  You can see right away that our discoveries, the red stars, fall towards the bottom of the cloud of blue dots made by the other discoveries.  So our discoveries are fainter than average.

Next, we plotted some lines indicating the detection limits of some other recent surveys, by Adam Schneider et al and by Davy Kirkpatrick et al. (That’s Adam Schneider from our science team.) Those are the two biggest brown dwarfs searches made using WISE before we began ours. The survey done by Schneider et al. only detected brown dwarfs that fall above the orange dashed line. The survey done by Kirkpatrick et al only detected brown dwarfs that fall above the black dash-dot line.  Those lines slant upward to the right because the WISE images they used were not divided into as fine time slices as ours, so some faster moving objects got blurred out.

Finally, we added some green lines showing what we think are the limits of Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.  Now this part is harder since our survey, of course, isn’t complete yet. But we do know more or less what the shapes of the curves should be.  We know that they slant up on the left side of the plot because that’s where the motion is too slow and the images of a moving object start self-subtracting.  And we know that the objects we have already detected, the red stars, must lie above the lines.  So we draw the curves and shift them around till they hug the bottom of the cluster of red stars—and that’s our best guess at our detection limits.

Note that there are two green lines.  That’s because WISE spent more time making images at higher latitudes (here the symbol, beta, means latitude), so our survey is a bit more sensitive there.  There’s only one brown dwarf candidate that’s up at a high latitude where this effect comes into play, though—it’s the one sitting on the lower green line.

So there we have it: a prediction for the sensitivity of our search.  We will spot any brown dwarfs that fall above the green lines (pick the right one based on latitude).  And we are the first to make an all-sky survey of the region above the green lines and below the orange and black lines.  (A few brown dwarfs are already known in this region, but they came from surveys that only covered relatively small portions of the sky).

Now, remember that this plot uses logarithmic scales!  Each of the big ticks on the x axis is a factor of 10. Each magnitude  (the y axis) represents a factor of about 2.512. So that space on the plot could contain lots of brown dwarfs and other interesting objects, especially at high proper motions.  Good luck!

Marc Kuchner

 

More Discoveries: New Candidate L Dwarfs!

Good work, everybody!  You’ve submitted at least five good newly discovered candidate L dwarfs on the Think-You’ve-Got-One form.

Let’s talk about L dwarfs.  The L spectral type contains object with temperatures in the range of about 1400-2200 Kelvin.  It was first established in 1999 by Kirkpatrick et al.. They chose the letter “L” because it is next to “M” in the alphabet; M was the coolest spectral type in the literature at the time, and “N” was already taken to describe a class of evolved stars.  Amazingly, L dwarfs are about twice as common as main sequence stars. They are just harder to spot because they are so much more faint and red.

The first L dwarf discovered was GD 165B, found by Becklin & Zuckerman in 1988.  Curiously, 165B orbits another special kind of astronomical object: a white dwarf.  Nowadays, about 1300 L dwarfs are known.  So discovering one new one doesn’t usually merit a paper on its own.  But when we collect a batch of 50 or so we will definitely want to announce them with a publication, especially if one or more turn out to be in moving groups of young stars.   For example, here’s a recent paper by our own Adam Schneider announcing the discovery of 47 new L dwarfs, including seven that are in young moving groups.  Membership in a moving group is important because it establishes the objects age.

A good clue that you might have an L dwarf is if it doesn’t appear in the DSS images, only in 2MASS and WISE.   That’s because the DSS images were taken in visible wavelengths, and L dwarfs are too cool to shine in visible light, so they only show up in 2MASS and WISE bands, which are infrared.   (T and Y dwarfs may not even show up in the 2MASS images). Just remember, the rule of thumb is that if it’s not in SIMBAD, we want to see it on the Think-You-ve-Got-One form.  There are still interesting objects to find that are in DSS images.

Here’s one of the ones you found.  It’s a great test for the eyes!

Ldwarf.x2.y1

It’s a faint bluish dipole. Can you spot it in this flipbook?  If not, scroll down to the answer key at the end of this article.

Here’s another one.  Remember, each one of these is a real new discovery–not a recovery of an object that was known before!

Ldwarf.x7.y6

Can you see it there?  Here’s a third on to challenge yourself with.

Ldwarf.x4.y1

OK here’s one more for you to test your skill on…

Ldwarf.x6.y4

Ignore that giant blinking blue ghost in the middle!  They are tough to spot.  If you need help, here are the answers, below.  Congratulations to @Andy_Arg,  @karmeliet,  @graham_d,  @stevnbak, and @NibiruX for their exceptional eyesight And keep up the good work, everybody!!

LdwarfFinder

Marc Kuchner

The Colors of Cold Brown Dwarfs

You may have heard of the spectral sequence, OBAFGKM.  What may be less well-known is that new brown dwarf spectral classes have been added in the past few decades. Now the full spectral sequence is OBAFGKMLTY, where the O stars are the most luminous, most massive, and hottest stars, while Y dwarfs are the lowest-mass, faintest, and coldest objects.
While the temperature drops through the MLTY spectral sequence, the chemistry occurring in the atmospheres of theses objects changes dramatically.  This can be seen most clearly when looking at the spectra of these objects.  The figure below shows what happens to the infrared spectra of objects spanning the MLTY spectral classes.  On this figure, we have also marked the positions of the WISE filters (W1 and W2).  Note that how bright each spectral type is in each filter changes. This is seen most dramatically in the Y dwarf, where almost no flux is emitted in the W1 filter and a relatively large amount of flux is emitted at W2.  This is because large amounts of methane are present in the atmospheres of T and Y dwarfs, and methane absorbs light in the wavelength range covered by W1, and there are no absorbing sources at W2.

ModSeq
Spectra of five different brown dwarfs with different temperatures and spectral classes. (credit: Michael Cushing)
We can look at how this difference between W1 and W2 changes as a function of spectral type by finding their “color”.  In astronomy, “color” refers to the difference in brightness of an object at different wavelengths.  So when we look at the W1-W2 color of objects, large values mean that an object is much brighter at W2 than W1.  The next figure shows how WISE colors vary with spectral type.   The coldest objects, T and Y dwarfs, have very distinct WISE colors.
w1w2
Colors of Brown Dwarfs in the two WISE bands we use at Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.
In fact, the WISE filters were built specifically to exploit this color difference in cold brown dwarfs.  Thus, the WISE images of a very cold brown dwarf will show nothing in W1 and a bright point source in W2 (third figure).  This is why some objects look orange in our WISE images. The mover example in the field guide is a good example of an orange-looking brown dwarf.
YdwarfWISE
Cool brown dwarfs can be much brighter in the W2 band.

The WISE colors of Planet 9 have been estimated to be very different than the colors of brown dwarfs.  This is why the point source in the Planet 9 simulation in the field guide looks blue.

Adam Schneider

Our First Discoveries

It’s only 23 days since launch.  And you’ve already discovered stuff!

We are still working on interpreting your classification clicks, and we probably will be for many months to come.  But people have already submitted more than 1100 interesting subjects using the Think-You’ve-Got-One form, which is a bit easier for us on the science team to use right away.  Among these objects, science team member Adam Schneider quickly spotted at least three interesting ones that we’ll want to include in an upcoming paper.  Let me tell you about them.

This one has got the science team all abuzz.

TdwarfCandidate_animation

It’s either a fast dipole or a slow mover.  It mover about 1.25 pixels between the first and last epochs.  And it’s faint.  Faint is good!  That means it’s less likely to already have been discovered.

It’s a little red (maybe pink)  in color, meaning it’s significantly brighter in the WISE 2 band than in the WISE 1 band.  In  fact, if you look at how bright it is in the WISE 1 and WISE 2 bands, and the fact that it doesn’t appear in the 2MASS catalog at all,  you would infer that it is likely to be a kind of brown dwarf called a “T dwarf”.  If it is a T dwarf, it is about 30 parsecs (98 light years) away.   PLEASE FIND MORE OF THESE!!

We are trying right now to find someone who is at the right telescope at the right time to take a spectrum of it, which would confirm that it really is a T dwarf.  A colleague offered to observe it for us this week using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility. Alas, the weather was bad, and they didn’t even open the observatory dome. There are some opportunities coming up for us to get a spectrum from other telescopes in Hawaii.  We will keep you posted.

The next two new discoveries appear to be nearby M dwarfs, based on their WISE and 2MASS colors.  Nearby M dwarfs like these should make good targets for future exoplanet searches with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)  and near infrared spectrographs like SPIREou, iLocator, and the Habitable Zone Planet Finder.

Take a peek at this subject.  At R.A. 11.8858634 degrees, declination -34.5458256 degrees (halfway up, near the left edge) is a blue-white dipole that appears to be a previously undiscovered M dwarf.  This flipbook is a bit tricky, since if you only looked at frame 1, for example, you might think it were covered with dipoles!  But when you play the animation, it becomes clear that most of those sources are ordinary artifacts.  Thanks to @raychieng for submitting it.

Finally, check out this subject.  Near the top, slightly left of center, at R.A. 217.8208564 degrees, declination 86.2991835 degrees (it’s almost at the north pole), is a moderately bright white dipole, which also appears to be a previously unreported M dwarf.   A VizieR search turns up a high-proper motion source at those coordinates in the PPMXL catalog and the URAT1 catalog, but without a spectral type. However, the photometry (i.e. how bright the star is, in magnitudes) across the suggests that this star is probably an M dwarf. Thanks to @stevnbak for submitting it.

How can you tell the spectral type of an object from its photometry? How can you recognize if your dipole/mover is an earth shattering new Y dwarf, a dazzling new T dwarf, a cool new M dwarf, or just a boring old early-type star? Stay tuned–we’ll talk about that in the next blog post.

Great work, everybody!   These discoveries are the proof of concept that we were hoping for.  And I’m sure there will be more to come.

Brown Dwarf: The object you should start to love…

 

You probably didn’t realize it, but when you started classifying on BackyardWorlds.org you were actually helping us search the nearby solar neighborhood for cold hidden worlds called brown dwarfs.  You might be asking yourself “Brown what”? And I’m here to answer that!  Lets start from the beginning.  Here is a cartoon version of star formation (on the left) and brown dwarf formation (on the right).  They form the same way!  The ingredients are a cloud of Hydrogen and Helium that collapses, fragments and then ignites.  Now the difference is that the star can ignite nuclear fusion.  The brown dwarf isn’t massive enough to get the core hot enough for that to happen.  So instead of having a nuclear engine that sustains its brightness for millions or billions of years like stars do, brown dwarfs just cool off for their entire lives.  BD_formation_watermark.jpg

Want to know another kind of object that cools for the entirety of its existence?  A planet.  So I like to say that brown dwarfs are objects that form like stars but evolve like planets.

Now brown dwarfs have temperatures so low that the majority of their light doesn’t come out in visible light.  While we now know that they are ABUNDANT in the Milky Way Galaxy, if you look up in the nighttime sky not a single one of those several thousand points of light you see is a brown dwarf.  They are invisible to human perception.  In order to find them we must turn to longer wavelength light.  Brown dwarfs glow in the infrared.  Thats why the NASA data we are using from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (or WISE for short) is so critical to brown dwarf science.  WISE has scanned the entire sky in the infrared and given us an unprecedented search tool for cold brown dwarfs near the Sun.  In fact the WISE telescope was designed in part to be able to find the coldest types of these objects.

Brown dwarfs come in three types of “flavors”.  There are L types, T types and Y types.  See the image below for some details on the temperatures of these types.BDs.001.jpgThe L types are the warmest and the Y types are the coldest.  Arguments could be made for which kind of brown dwarf is the most exciting to study but for the sake of this blog post I’ll tell you about two different ones that were stupendous discoveries to come out of mining WISE data the same way that you are doing.

Just a few years ago an Astronomer from Penn State named Kevin Luhman was looking through the WISE data for objects that moved over the full timeline of the spacecraft.  In 2013 he discovered a fantastic brown dwarf binary (named Luhman16AB after him) that turned out to be the 3rd closest system to the Sun.  Until that time Astronomers figured they had the solar neighborhood solidified.  The last time the top 5 closest objects to the Sun had changed was almost a century prior.  More than that, Luhman16AB is a dynamic system.  One of the objects is an L type and one is a T type.  The L type appears to have large violent storms raging in the outer atmosphere.  Astronomers have made maps of it and are using it to understand what exoplanet weather might look like.  This binary had been missed by numerous professional and very experienced astronomers (myself included) because it moves very fast and is in a particularly crowded part of the sky.  By blinking images you might be able to uncover another bright, beautiful system like this one.

BDs.002.jpg
An artists rendition of what a brown dwarf with active storms and weather might look like.

The second object I want to tell you about is one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve seen in my career as a brown dwarf scientist.  Its an object called WISE0855 and its a Y type brown dwarf with a mass between 3 – 10 times that of Jupiter and a surface temperature equivalent to a balmy day at the North Pole.  Dr. Luhman also found this one by blinking images and it turns out to be the coldest compact source ever discovered outside our own solar system.  It’s so cold that its outer atmosphere is likely teeming with water ice clouds.  In 2014 I wrote a paper on the indications of those water clouds in the object and in 2016 I worked with a team that obtained the very first spectrum of it.  We  directly compared it to Jupiter and found striking similarities.  Best of all, WISE0855 is the 4th closest system to the Sun.  Just a bit further than Luhman16AB.  In just one year, WISE data completely changed the solar neighborhood.  This should make you wonder, what else is out there?  With so many eyes working on the WISE dataset I’m hoping we pinpoint a brown dwarf that is closer than proxima centauri (the closest star).  One that is covered in strange exotic clouds.  Hopefully one of our thousands of volunteers is blinking an image right now and marking a key object in understanding the atmospheres of worlds beyond our solar system.

Good Luck Searching!  — Jackie