Clue Found to Origin of Cosmic Misfits
This image shows two young brown dwarfs, objects that fall somewhere between planets and stars in terms of their temperature and mass. Here we see a long sought-after view of these very young objects, labeled as A and B, which appear as closely-spaced purple-blue and orange-white dots at the very center of this image.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Calar Alto Obsv./Caltech Sub. Obsv.

A class of cosmic oddballs exists that doesn't fit in with either stars or planets, instead occupying a murky middle ground.

Known as brown dwarfs, these misfits fall somewhere between planets and stars in terms of their temperature and mass. They are cooler and more lightweight than stars and more massive (and normally warmer) than planets.

This has generated a debate among astronomers: Do brown dwarfs form like planets or like stars?

Scientists now have an additional clue ? a baby brown dwarf was discovered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope ? that suggests brown dwarfs develop like light-weight stars.

Brown dwarf quandry

Brown dwarfs are born of the same dense, dusty clouds that spawn stars and planets. But while they may share the same galactic nursery, brown dwarfs are often called ?failed? stars because they lack the mass of their hotter, brighter stellar siblings.

Without that mass, the gas at their core does not get hot enough to trigger the thermonuclear fusion that burns hydrogen ? the main component of these molecular clouds ? into helium. Unable to ignite as stars, brown dwarfs end up as cooler, less luminous objects that are more difficult to detect ? a challenge that was overcome in this case by Spitzer?s heat-sensitive infrared vision.

To complicate matters, young brown dwarfs evolve rapidly, making it difficult to catch them when they are first born.

The first brown dwarf was discovered in 1995, and while hundreds have been found since, astronomers had not been able to unambiguously find them in their earliest stages of formation until now.

Looking through cosmic dust

In this study, an international team of astronomers found a so-called ?proto brown dwarf? while it was still hidden in its natal star-forming region. Guided by Spitzer data collected in 2005, they focused their search in the dark cloud Barnard 213, a region of the Taurus-Auriga complex well known to astronomers as a hunting ground for young cosmic objects.

"We decided to go several steps back in the process when (brown dwarfs) are really hidden," said David Barrado of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, lead author of the paper detailing the discovery in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. "During this step they would have an (opaque) envelope, a cocoon, and they would be easier to identify due to their strong infrared excesses. We have used this property to identify them. This is where Spitzer plays an important role because Spitzer can have a look inside these clouds."

Spitzer?s longer-wavelength infrared camera penetrated the dusty natal cloud to observe a baby brown dwarf named SSTB213 J041757. The data, confirmed with near-infrared imaging from Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, revealed not one but two of what would potentially prove to be the faintest and coolest brown dwarfs ever observed. They're also the youngest, the astronomers think.

To pin down that the dusty envelope was in fact a celestial womb and that these dwarfs were in their infancy, Barrado and his team had them observed from around the world. The information gleaned from these observations helped the astronomers characterize the brown dwarfs and the environment around them.

"We were able to estimate that these two objects are the faintest and coolest discovered so far," Barrado said.

The observations suggest brown dwarfs form like low-mass stars. This theory is bolstered because the change in brightness of the objects at various wavelengths of light matches that of other very young, low-mass stars.

While further study will confirm whether these two celestial objects are in fact proto brown dwarfs, they are the best candidates so far, Barrado said.