Monday 18 December 2017

'Weather map' for distant world

This composite image shows a map of the weather on the surface of Luhman 16B (ESO/I.Crossfield/PA)
This composite image shows a map of the weather on the surface of Luhman 16B (ESO/I.Crossfield/PA)

A "weather map" for a distant world where it rains molten iron has been produced by scientists.

The brown dwarf Luhman 16B - technically a "failed star" - is 6.5 light years away and the closest object of its type to the Sun.

Using novel techniques to analyse its atmosphere, scientists found that Luhman 16B is surrounded by a searingly hot blanket of patchy clouds made up of droplets of liquid iron and other minerals.

The clouds have a complex structure and temperatures exceeding 1000C.

As the object rotates, bright and dark clouds move in and out of view and alter its brightness.

Using two telescopes in Chile, the researchers mapped a layer of the clouds and reconstructed what happens at different levels of the atmosphere.

Dr Beth Biller, from the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "We are excited by what we have been able to see in these studies, but this is only the start.

"With new generations of telescopes, such as the forthcoming European Extremely Large Telescope, astronomers will likely see surface maps of more distant brown dwarfs - and eventually, surface maps for young giant planets."

Two studies of Luhman 16B appear in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and journal Nature.

Methods used by the astronomers could eventually be applied to small, cool planets in other solar systems.

Brown dwarfs are objects larger than a gas giant planet such as Jupiter but smaller than a star. Their mass is too low to ignite the kind of nuclear furnace found at the heart of the Sun and other stars.

Press Association

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