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Is a Brown Dwarf a Planet or a Star?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.


So many possibilities exist for describing a star. You can go by its color, whether it be blue, red, yellow, or white. Size is also an important contributor, for it could be a main sequence, a giant, a supergiant, or even a dwarf. But how many know about an odd member of the star family known as brown dwarfs? Many don’t, and that is because at face value they seem to have more in common with Jupiter-like planets than a star and so are passed by frequently. Curious? Read on.

From Theory to Fact

Brown dwarfs were first postulated by Shiv Kumar in the 1960’s when exploring the fusion of matter inside a star. He wondered what would happen if the center of a star were degenerate (or in a state where electrons are confined to their orbitals) but the overall star was not massive enough to fuse the material located there. They would be slightly larger than a gas giant and would radiate heat still but at first glance it would visibly look similar to those planets. In fact, because of the degenerate matter and the limiting radius of the object, only a certain amount of thermal heat can be gained before flattening out. You see, stars form when a cloud of molecular gas collapses under gravitational potential energy until the density and heat are sufficient for hydrogen to start fusing. However, stars need to obtain a density larger than this to initiate the fusion in the first place, for once it is obtained then some energy is lost through partial degeneracy and contraction (Emspak 25-6, Burgasser 70).

Chart showing the bounds for a brown dwarf formation for a Population I star.

Chart showing the bounds for a brown dwarf formation for a Population I star.

Chart showing similar information for Population II stars.

Chart showing similar information for Population II stars.

But that degeneracy pressure requires a certain mass to overcome it. Kumar determined that 0.07 solar masses was the lowest possible mass for hydrogen to have sufficient pressure to fuse for Population I stars and 0.09 solar masses for Population II stars. Anything below that allows electrons to combat degenerate pressure and avoid compaction. Kumar wanted to name these objects black dwarfs, but that title belongs to a white dwarf which has cooled off. It would not be until 1975 that Jill Tarter came up with the brown dwarf term used today. But then all was quiet for 20 years, with none being known to exist. Then in 1995 Teide 1 was found, and scientists were able to start finding more and more. The reason for the large delay between idea and observation was that the wavelength brown dwarfs emit light at 1-5 micrometers, near the limits of the IR spectrum. Technology needed to catch up with this range and so it was years before those first observations. Currently, 1000’s are known to exist (Emspak 25-6, Kumar 1122-4 Burgasser 70).

Mechanics of a Brown Dwarf

To discuss how a brown dwarf star does work is slightly complicated. Because of their low mass, they do not follow typical H-R diagram trends that most stars do. After all, they cool faster than a typical star because of a lack of fusion creating heat, with bigger dwarfs cooling slower than smaller ones. To help make some distinctions, brown dwarfs are broken into M, L, T, and Y classes, with M being the hottest and Y being the coolest. If any method exists for using these to help figure out the age of the dwarf, it remains unknown at this time. No one is really sure how to age them! They may follow standard temperature laws of stars (hotter meaning younger) but no one is 100% sure, especially the ones that are near planet-level temperatures. In fact, despite different spectrums, most brown dwarfs that are cool are at nearly the same temperature. Again, no one is sure why but hopefully by studying gas giant planet atmospheric physics (their closet kin), scientists hope to solve some of these riddles (Emspak 26, Ferron "What").

3 way table examining the relation between radius, temperature, and density of brown dwarfs.

3 way table examining the relation between radius, temperature, and density of brown dwarfs.

And good luck finding their mass. Why? Most are alone out there, and without a companion object to apply orbital mechanics to, it is nearly impossible to accurately measure the mass. But scientists are clever, and by looking at the spectrum from them it may be possible to determine the mass. Some elements have a known spectral line that can be moved and stretched/compressed based on volume and pressure changes, which can then be related back to mass. By comparing the measured spectrums with known changes, scientists can perhaps find out how much material would be needed to impact the spectrum (Emspak 26).

But now the distinction between the planet-like nature and star-like nature becomes murky. For brown dwarfs have weather! Not like anything here on Earth though. This weather is solely based on temperature differentials, with them reaching heights of 3000 Kelvin. And as the temperature starts to drop, materials start to condense. First it is clouds of silicon and iron, and as you get to lower and lower temps those clouds become methane and water, making brown dwarfs the only other known place outside the solar system with water in the clouds. Evidence for this was uncovered when WISE 0855-0714 was found by Jackie Fakerty of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It is a relatively cold brown dwarf, clocking in at about 250 kelvin with a mass of 6-10 Jupiters and a distance of 7.2 light years from Earth (Emspak 26-7, Haynes "Coldest," Dockrill).

Visual cues for brown dwarf populations.

Visual cues for brown dwarf populations.

But it got even better when scientists announced that brown dwarfs have their own storms! According to a January 7, 2014 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, when 44 brown dwarfs were examined for 20 hour durations each by Spitzer, half exhibited surface turbulence consistent with a storm pattern. And in a January 30, 2014 issue of Nature, Ian Crossfield (Max Planck Institute) and his team looked at WISE J104 915.57-531906.AB, otherwise known as Luhman 16A and B. They are a pair of close brown dwarfs 6.5 light-years away which offer great views of their surfaces to scientists. When the spectrograph on the VLT soaked in light from both for a 5 hour duration each, the CO portion was examined. Bight and dark regions appeared on maps of the dwarfs that appear to track storms. That's right, the first extra-solar weather map was created from another object's atmosphere! (Kruesi "Weather").

Amazingly, scientists can actually look at light that has passed through the atmosphere of a brown dwarf to learn details about it. Kay Hiranaka, at the time a grad student at Hunter College, began a study on this. Looking at models of brown dwarf growth, it was found that as a brown dwarf ages more material falls into it, making them less opaque due to lack of cloud cover. Therefore, the amount of light one lets through could be an indicator of age (27).

But Kelle Cruz, Hiranaka’s advisor, found a few interesting deviations from the simulations which may hint at new behavior. When looking at low mass brown dwarfs, many of their absorption spectrums lack sharp peaks and was either shifted slightly to the blue portion or the red portion of the spectrums. Sodium, cesium, rubidium, potassium, iron hydrides, and titanium oxides spectral lines were weaker than expected but vanadium oxides were higher than anticipated. And on top of this, lithium levels were off. As in non-existent. Why is this weird? Because the only way for lithium to not be there is if it fuses with hydrogen into helium, something a brown dwarf is not massive enough to do. So what could have caused this? Some wonder if a low initial gravity caused the heavier element to be lost in the past. Also, it is possible for the cloud composition of the brown dwarf to scatter the lithium waves, for the dust size may be small enough to block it (Ibid).

The boundary between stars and brown dwarfs.

The boundary between stars and brown dwarfs.

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Stanimir Metchev, from the University of Western Ontario in London, decided a different aspect needed looking at: temperature. Using brightness levels recorded over years, a map was made to show how brown dwarf surfaces change. They typically range from 1300 to 1500 Kelvin with younger brown dwarfs not only having a higher temperature overall but a higher differential between the low and the high when compared to colder, older brown dwarfs. But while looking at the surface maps, Metchev found that the spin rate of these objects do not match models, with many spinning slower than expected. The spin should be dictated by the conservation of angular momentum, and with much of the mass close to the core of the object it should spin fast. Yet most complete a revolution in 10 hours. And with no other known forces to slow them down, what could have? Possibly a magnetic field interaction with the interstellar medium, although most models show brown dwarfs not having enough mass for a substantial magnetic field (27-8).

Those models got a huge upgrade when some new trends on brown dwarfs were revealed by a study led by Todd Henry (Georgia State University). In his report, Todd references how the Research Consortium on Nearby Stars (RECONS) looked at 63 brown dwarfs that were at that 2100 K boundary point (as seen in the graph above) in an effort to better understand the defining moment when a brown dwarf wouldn't be a planet. Unlike gas giants, where diameter is directly proportional to mass and temperature, brown dwarfs have temperatures that go up as diameter and mass decrease. Scientists found that the conditions for the smallest brown dwarf possible should be a temperature of 210 K, a diameter of 8.7% that of the Sun's, and a luminosity that is 0.000125% that of the Sun's (Ferron "Defining")

Something that is an even bigger help to the models would be a better understanding of that transition point from a brown dwarf to a star, and scientists found just that using the X-Shooter at the VLT in Chile. According to the May 19 paper in Nature, in binary system J1433, a white dwarf stole enough material from its companion to transform it into a sub stellar brown dwarf. This is a first, no other such instance is known to exist, and by backtracking observations perhaps new insights can be reached (Wenz "From").

But scientists were not expecting WD 1202-024, a white dwarf at 0.2-0.3 solar masses that until recently was thought to be a loner. But after looking at the changes in brightness over the years and the spectroscopy, astronomers found that WD 1202-024 has a companion - a brown dwarf that clocks in at 34-36 Jupiter masses - that are on average only 192,625 miles apart! That is "less than the distance between the Moon and Earth!" They also orbit fast, completing a cycle in 71 minutes, and number crunching reveals they have an average tangential velocity of 62 miles per second. Based on life models of white dwarfs, the brown dwarf was eaten by the red giant that preceded the white dwarf 50 million years ago. But wait, wouldn't that destroy the brown dwarf? Turns, because of the density of the red giant's outer layers being way less than that of the brown dwarf. Friction ensued between the brown dwarf and the red giant, transferring energy from the dwarf to the giant. This actually speeding up the death of the giant by giving the outer layers enough energy to leave and force the giant to devolve into a white dwarf. And in 250 million years, the brown dwarf will likely fall into the white dwarf and become a giant flare. As to why the brown dwarf did not gain enough material during this to become a star remains unknown (Kiefert, Klesman).

What if in our endeavor to uncover that difference in formation we looked at the orbit of a brown dwarf? That is what scientists decided to do with the help of the W.M. Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope as they took yearly data on the position of brown dwarfs and giant exoplanets around their host stars. Now, getting a snapshot once a year is enough to extrapolate orbits for objects but uncertainty is present so computer software was implemented using Kepler's planetary laws to give possible orbits based on the recorded data. As it turns out, the exoplanets had circular orbits (because they formed from debris that was a flat disc around the star) while the brown dwarfs has eccentric ones (where a clump of gas from the host star was thrown off and formed separate from it). This implies that the proposed link between Jupiter-like planets and brown dwarfs may not be so clear-cut as we thought (Chock).

The possible orbits of the brown dwarfs and exoplanets.

The possible orbits of the brown dwarfs and exoplanets.

Planet Maker?

So we have highlighted numerous reasons why brown dwarfs are not planets. But can they make them like other stars can? Conventional thought would be no, which in science just means you haven't looked hard enough yet. 4 brown dwarfs have been seen with planetary forming-like discs, according to researchers from the Universite de Montreal and the Carnegie Institution. 3 of them were 13-18 Quipster masses while the 4th was over 120. In all cases, a hot disc surrounded the brown dwarfs, an indicator of collisions as the building blocks of planets begin to clump together. But brown dwarfs are failed stars and shouldn't have spare material around them. We have another mystery (Haynes "Brown").

Or maybe we need to look at the situation differently. Maybe those discs are there because the brown dwarf was forming just like its stellar compatriots. Evidence for this came from VLA when jets from forming brown dwarfs were spotted in a region 450 light years from us. Stars forming in their dense regions have exhibited these jets as well, so maybe brown dwarfs share other properties with star formation, like the jets and even the planetary discs (NRAO).

Certainly knowing how many are out there could help us narrow down options, and RCW 38 may help us out. It is a 'ultra dense' cluster of star formation about 5,500 light-years away. It has a ratio of brown dwarfs that is comparable to 5 other similar clusters, paving a way to estimate the number of brown dwarfs out there in the Milky Way. Based on the 'fairly uniformly distributed' clusters, we should expect a total of 25 billion brown dwarfs (Wenz "Brown") Billions! Imagine the possibilities...

Works Cited

Burgasser, Adam J. “Brown Dwarfs – Failed Stars, Super Jupiters.” Physics Today June 2008: 70. Print.

Chock, Mari-Ela. "Distant giant planets form differently than 'failed stars.'" innovations-report, 11 Feb. 2020. Web. 19 Aug. 2020.

Dockrill, Peter. "Astronomers think they've detected the first water clouds outside our Solar System." Science Alert, 07 Jul. 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2018.

Emspak, Jesse. “The Little Stars That Couldn’t.” Astronomy May 2015: 25-9. Print.

Ferron, Karri. "Defining the Boundary Between Stars and Brown Dwarfs." Astronomy Apr. 2014: 15. Print.

---. "What are We Learning About the Coldest Brown Dwarfs?" Astronomy Mar.2014: 14. Print.

Haynes, Korey. "Brown Dwarfs Forming Planets." Astronomy Jan. 2017: 10. Print.

---. "Coldest Brown Dwarf Mimics Jupiter." Astronomy Nov. 2016: 12. Print.

Kiefert, Nicole. "This Brown Dwarf Used to Be Inside Its White Dwarf Companion." Kalmbach Publishing Co., 22 Jun. 2017. Web. 14 Nov. 2017.

Klesman, Alison. "The Brown Dwarf That Killed Its Brother." Kalmbach Publishing Co., 03 Nov. 2017. Web. 13 Dec. 2017.

Kruesi, Liz. "Weather Forecasts on Brown Dwarfs." Astronomy Apr. 2014: 15. Print.

Kumar, Shiv S. “The Structure of Stars of Very Low Mass.” American Astronomical Society 27 Nov. 1962: 1122-5. Print.

NRAO. "Brown Dwarfs, Stars Share Formation Process, New Study Indicates." Kalmbach Publishing Co., 24 Jul. 2015. Web. 17 Jun. 2017.

Wenz, John. "Brown Dwarfs Might Be As Plentiful as Stars." Astronomy Nov. 2017: 15. Print.

---. "From Star to Brown Dwarf." Astronomy Sept. 2016: 12. Print.

© 2016 Leonard Kelley


Leonard Kelley (author) on July 22, 2016:

Thanks Holt. I appreciate the feedback, for it lets me know if I am doing a good job.

Holt on July 21, 2016:

Awesome work man. Really cleared it up.

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