Astronomers have used the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes to simultaneously to peer into the stormy atmosphere of the brown dwarf called  2MASSJ22282889-431026, creating the most detailed "weather map" yet for this class of strange, not-quite-star-and-not-quite-planet objects. The forecast shows wind-driven, planet-sized clouds enshrouding these strange worlds - forever.


They found that its light varied in time, brightening and dimming as the body rotated around every 1.4 hours, and also that the timing of the brightening changed depending on whether they looked at it with Spitzer or Hubble using different wavelengths of infrared light. Hubble sees shorter-wavelength infrared light than Spitzer.  These variations are the result of different layers, or patches, of material swirling around the brown dwarf in windy storms as large as Earth itself. Spitzer and Hubble see different atmosphere layers because certain infrared wavelengths are blocked by vapors of water and methane high up, while other infrared wavelengths emerge from much deeper.

Brown dwarfs form out of condensing gas like stars but fail to accrue enough mass to ignite the nuclear fusion process necessary to turn them into a star. Instead, they pass their lives as dimly glowing, constantly cooling gas balls similar to gas planets with their complex, varied atmospheres. Ranging in size between Jupiter and the smallest stars and commonly weighing in at 30-40 Jupiter masses, brown dwarfs are cool relative to other stars but quite hot by our Earthly standards. This particular object is 1,100 to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Being warm, they emit strongly in the infrared wavelengths picked up by Spitzer and Hubble. 

At the cooler, outer layers of the star, gas condenses into smoke-sized particles, including sand and iron, which fall down into the interior as a sandy and iron rain. Just like on Earth, the iron and sand "raindrops" heat up as they enter the deeper warmer layer and eventually evaporate, triggering a rain cycle.

"With Hubble and Spitzer, we were able to look at the layers of a brown dwarf, similar to the way doctors use medical imaging techniques to study the different tissues in your body," said Daniel Apai, the principal investigator of the research from the University of Arizona. "The deeper layers appear to lag behind the higher layers. This tells us that the same or similar cloud distribution is present in the different layers, but the deeper you look, the later you will see the same clouds turning into view.

"We were very surprised to see such a big lag. Our best guess is this has to do with the brown dwarf's atmospheric circulation. The bigger picture here is that we see a very large-scale atmospheric structure in this brown dwarf."

These out-of-sync light variations provide a fingerprint of how the brown dwarf's weather systems stack up vertically, they say. The data suggest that regions on the brown dwarf where the weather is moist and cloudy deep in the atmosphere coincide with balmier, drier conditions at higher altitudes – and vice versa.  

Apai said the atmospheric dynamics on brown dwarfs are very different from those here on Earth. "On our planet, we have only one species of cloud - water. But on this brown dwarf, there is such a wide temperature range that we have many different species of clouds." 

In three ongoing Spitzer programs, Apai and his co-investigators have successfully explored the properties of cloud covers in about 50 brown dwarfs.

"As different wavelengths probe different pressures and different rotational phases probe different latitudes we will be able to explore the two or even three-dimensional structure of the atmospheres," Apai said.

Buenzli said that theorists are excited to model the new data: a new era of weather reporting has begun.

"Eventually, we want to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets in a similar fashion," she said.

"Currently, we can't get this type of data on exoplanets because their bright host stars blind our vision," Apai said. "Brown dwarfs are the perfect laboratories for studying the exotic science of worlds beyond our own. Brown dwarfs are fascinating and diverse. Now we've got a new technique to chase their gigantic and violent storms."


Presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California.