Is the Secret to Finding Aliens Hiding in Brown Dwarfs?

Friday, 05 January 2018 - 10:39AM
Alien Life
Friday, 05 January 2018 - 10:39AM
Is the Secret to Finding Aliens Hiding in Brown Dwarfs?
Image credit: NASA
Of all the various celestial phenomena that exists out beyond the boundaries of our own world, few are as fascinating as brown dwarf "stars."

Brown dwarfs aren't really stars in the traditional sense, nor are they planets. In fact, while our understanding of them is in its early stages, NASA believes that if we can unlock their secrets, we may finally be able to easily find both aliens and habitable planets with shocking accuracy.

Not only that, learning more about brown dwarfs could better help us to further be able to understand the process through which star systems form in the first place.

With all of that in mind, NASA has announced it will be pointing the James Webb Space Telescope at one of them in a new study that aims to explain just why some stars fail to quite pop.

This is what makes them so interesting: they blur the line between these two otherwise clearly defined categories. A brown dwarf will often look a lot like a planet, but it will produce its own light and heat, albeit in far smaller quantities than a full-blown star.

Jupiter has some elements of a brown dwarf—it lets out more light and heat than it takes in from the sun—but other examples that are more indicative of the murky category can be up to 70 times larger than Jupiter, and can exist in their own corner of space, without any genuine star to orbit.

It's rare to see this kind of independent brown star that's not at least five times bigger than Jupiter, but presumably, all kinds of different sizes exist out in space, all by themselves, just waiting to be discovered.

Think of brown dwarfs as fires that never quite lit, full of wasted potential that won't ever quite get the chance to shine fully. They're essentially the unpopped kernels in a celestial bag of microwave popcorn.

Specifically, the Webb telescope will be looking at SIMP0136, a fascinating example of a brown dwarf star because it exists relatively close to our own world, but unlike Jupiter, it's not caught in the gravity of a more successful star. SIMP0136 also isn't as big as many brown dwarfs, providing us with a good mid-point between a planet and a star to observe up close.

According to Étienne Artigau of the University of Montreal, who will lead this study:

Opening quote
"The brown dwarf SIMP0136 has the same temperature as various planets that will be observed in transit spectroscopy with Webb, and clouds are known to affect this type of measurement; our observations will help us better understand cloud decks in brown dwarfs and planet atmospheres in general."
Closing quote

It'll be interesting to see what discoveries this study turns up. If we're able to get a better understanding of what provides the spark that causes a start to burst forth, we'll be more equipped to answer a lot of questions about the life cycle of star systems and their planets.

Some scientists are hopeful that this might lead to a whole new category of planets; ones that roam the galaxy all by themselves, independent of any external sun, but instead providing enough light and heat internally.

If this is the case, we'll have to fundamentally rethink our current idea of what a planet actually is, as if they can exist all by themselves, it gets harder to draw a line between all of the different cosmic bodies that float endlessly throughout the universe.
Alien Life