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Amateur astronomer spots 34 paired-off 'failed' stars in brown dwarf project

A citizen scientist used old telescope data to find a trove of binary star systems that include what are sometimes dubbed "failed stars."

These stars, also known as brown dwarfs, are mysterious objects with more than 12 times the mass of Jupiter and less than half the mass of the sun. Scientists have long debated whether these objects are more like stars or very large planets, and the new detections might help settle the issue. Even with the best computing technology, humans still have an advantage spotting brown dwarfs in astronomical data, and that's where citizen science enters the scene.

"Modern astronomy archives contain an immense treasure trove of data and often harbor major discoveries just waiting to be noticed," Aaron Meisner, who helps lead the project and is an astronomer at National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab), said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Related: Brown dwarfs: The coolest stars or the hottest planets?

Artist's impression of an ultracool dwarf, with a companion white dwarf.  (Image credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/M. Garlick)

Binary star systems have two stars orbiting around a common center of mass, and are quite common. (Image credit: NASA)

Zooniverse's Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 (opens in new tab) project focuses on spotting brown dwarfs, and it was within that project that amateur astronomer Frank Kiwy spotted the new discoveries. Kiwy was poring through a catalog of 4 billion celestial objects in the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory) Source Catalog DR2 (opens in new tab), looking for objects that share the same color as brown dwarfs.

Kiwy's work uncovered 2,500 potential such ultracool dwarfs. A further search of the catalog for objects that may orbit a companion detected 34 such binary star systems. In each system, the ultracool dwarf is joined by a white dwarf, the stellar core that remains after a sun-like star runs out of fuel.

Artist's impression of a brown dwarf. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In each newfound system, the two stars are relatively close to each other. In the closest binary pair, the stars were separated by 170 astronomical units. (One astronomical unit equals the distance between the Earth and sun, equaling about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.) The largest separation was 8,500 astronomical units. By comparison, our sun is roughly 253,000 astronomical units from the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

"I love the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project!" Kiwy said of his participation. "If you're a person who is curious and not afraid to learn something new, this might be the right thing for you."

A paper based on the research was published (opens in new tab) Wednesday (June 6) in the Astronomical Journal. A preprint version is available on arXiv.org (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.