An international team  have discovered one of the coolest sub-stellar bodies ever found outside our own solar system, orbiting the red dwarf star Wolf 940, some 40 light years from Earth.

The object is thought to have formed like a star, but has ended up looking more like Jupiter. It is roughly the same size, despite being between 20 and 30 times as heavy, and when the infrared spectral "fingerprints" of the two objects are compared, their resemblance is striking.

The new object orbits its star at about 440 times the distance at which the Earth orbits the sun. At such a wide distance, it takes about 18,000 years to complete a single orbit.

Wolf 940A and Wolf 940B
CLICK ABOVE FOR FULL SIZE.   UKIRT UKIDSS image of Wolf 940A and Wolf 940B. Credit: UKIRT / B. Burningham / University of Hertfordshire

Dr Ben Burningham of the University of Hertfordshire will present this discovery on Monday 20th April at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science conference.

"Although it has a temperature of 300 degrees Celsius, which is almost hot enough to melt lead, temperature is relative when you study this sort of thing, and this object is cool by stellar standards. In fact this is the first time we've been able to study an object as cool as this in such detail", says Dr Burningham, "the fact that it is orbiting a star makes it extra special".

Too small to be stars, so-called "brown dwarfs" have masses lower than stars but larger than gas giant planets like Jupiter. Due to their low temperature these objects are very faint in visible light, and are detected by their glow at infrared wavelengths.

Modelling the atmospheres of cool brown dwarfs is a complex task, but it is key to understanding what we see when we look at planets that orbit other stars. Models of emitted light from such objects, which are dominated by absorption due to water and methane gas, are sensitive to assumptions about their age and chemical make-up.

In most cases astronomers don't initially know much about the age and composition of brown dwarfs and this can make it hard to tell where the models are right, and where they are going wrong.

"What's so exciting in this case, is that we can use what we know about the primary star to find out about the properties of the brown dwarf, and that makes it an extremely useful find", explains Dr Burningham, "you can think of it as a Rosetta Stone for decrypting what the light from such cool objects is telling us".

The object has been named Wolf 940B, after the red dwarf star that it orbits, which was first catalogued by the pioneering German astronomer Max Wolf ninety years ago.

"Red dwarfs are the most populous stars in the Galaxy, and systems like this may be more common than we know" says Dr David Pinfield of the University of Hertfordshire, "As the generation of ongoing large scale surveys continues, we may discover a pack of Wolf-940B-like objects in our solar back yard."

Wolf 940B was initially discovered as part of a major infrared sky survey - the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) which is being carried out using the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The object was found as part of a wider effort to find the coolest and least luminous bodies in our local Galactic neighbourhood, but it was then found to be a companion to the nearby red dwarf Wolf 940 through its common motion across the sky. The data used to confirm the discovery were obtained using telescopes in Chile, the Canary Islands and Hawaii.

Its temperature was then confirmed using data from the Gemini-North telescope on Mauna Kea. The team's findings will soon be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Following its discovery with ground based telescopes, Wolf 940B, has since been observed by the NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, and the findings from those observations will be published later this year.

"This object is going to continue to provide insights into the processes of cool brown dwarf, and warm planetary atmospheres for some time to come", says Dr Sandy Leggett, of the Gemini Observatory, "finding it was just the first step."