Brown Dwarf Weather Patterns Mapped
ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger (
Top image: Artist’s impression of brown dwarf Luhman 16B. Credit: ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger (
Extreme Space Weather
Oct. 3, 2011 --
With hurricanes, floods, massive thunderstorms, heat waves and wildfires, we might be inclined to believe that the weather on Earth is sometimes less than hospitable to the life that inhabits it. But compared to other planets, stars and other bodies in the cosmos, the weather on Earth is downright mild. In this slide show, explore what conditions are like elsewhere in the universe. By the time you're done reading this slide show, you'll know exactly what to say the next time you hear someone whining about the weather: "Quit complaining. At least we don't live on HD 209458b."
Credit: Paul A. Kempton
The Sauna Planet "It's not the heat; it's the humidity" is a common expression on especially muggy days in the heat of the summer. But on exoplanet GJ 1214b, we guarantee you won't notice the difference. Located about 40 light-years from our planet, this super-Earth waterworld is believed to possess an atmosphere of dense steam. The exoplanet is between two and 10 times larger than Earth and located approximately 70 times closer to its parent star. Essentially, this planet is one giant sauna, turned up to temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537 degrees Celsius).
Mars Storms Hurricanes are the largest storms on Earth. With powerful wind gusts and heavy rains, the storms can take a devastating toll on millions at a time. But in terms of size, they can't compare to the dust storms that can roll across Mars and affect the entire planet. In fact, some storms are so large that amateur astronomers can occasionally view them using ground based telescopes. During dust storms, wind gusts can reach up to 300 miles per hour, far stronger than any storm ever recorded on Earth.
Supersonic Planet If you're a windsurfing enthusiast, HD189733b may be just the right place for you. That is, at least it would be if it weren't 60 light-years away and orbiting its parent star so closely. Classified as a hot Jupiter, this gas giant hosts wind speeds that exceed the speed of sound. And since, as Adam Showman of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory explains, the speed of sound of HD189733b is 10 times faster than it is on Earth, that's a pretty significant accomplishment. To put a number on it, the winds can reach speeds of around 6,700 miles (10,870 kilometers) per hour. That should help to cool down any potential visitors, since the temperature on the surface of the planet facing the sun can reach 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit (926 degrees Celsius).
Tidally Locked World Located some 150 light-years from Earth, HD 209458b is a hot Jupiter with one major convenience: You never have to bother to set your watch. The planet is in a tidally locked orbit with its parent star, meaning one side is always facing the sun and the other side is stuck in perpetual night. Because of this disparity, the planet also has strong winds similar to those of HD189733b. However, wind speeds on this planet only reach 4,500 miles per hour, making it a better option for a thrill-seeking windsurfer who might still be holding out hope of keeping a hair or two in place.
Credit: Jon Lomberg/Univ. of Toronto
Forget Jupiter The swirling storm at the center of Jupiter's Great Red Spot might get all the attention in our solar system. But that storm is a tiny tyke compared to the one on this brown drawf. Affectionately called "2MASS J21392676+0220226," this brown dwarf is located approximately 47 light-years away.
Solar Storms Unlike the weather mentioned in every other entry on this slide show, storms on the sun can have a significant impact on life on Earth. As storm activity increases in frequency as the sun approaches its solar maximum in its 11-year cycle, solar flares and coronal mass ejections can threaten the functionality of satellite systems, affecting computer, navigation and telecommunications networks on Earth, as well as potentially disrupt power grids. Unfortunately, an umbrella won't do us much good in the event of a massive solar storm as the sun blasts plasma particles at Earth at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. But that doesn't mean there's reason to panic, either. (Not yet, anyway.)
Credit: ESA/V. Beckmann (NASA-GSFC)
Honorable Mention: Black Holes If you're chasing massive storms in space, nothing quite rivals the strength and intensity of the tidal forces created by a hungry black hole. When black holes tear into stars, they pull in gasses from that star at such high speeds as to create bright gamma-ray bursts that are detectable from Earth. Anything that comes near a black hole is stretched out, then ripped apart and smashed together again with other matter at velocities approaching the speed of light. If there's one storm you absolutely don't want to get caught in this year, it's one created by drifting too close to a black hole.
More stories by Talal Al-Khatib.
What’s the weather like out there? No, I don’t mean in your city, or your state or even your country… or planet — I’m talking about really out there: 35.2 trillion miles, in fact, and not on a planet at all but rather on a brown dwarf. (That’s a so-called “failed star,” if you’re the type who likes to point out negatives.)
It might seem a purely hypothetical question but astronomers have actually managed to directly observe “weather” on a brown dwarf, using the incredible imaging power of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) located on the Cerro Paranal mountain in Chile’s Atacama desert.
Changing patterns of dark and light regions have been observed moving around the brown dwarf as it rotates — similar to what might be seen on a gas giant planet like Jupiter or Saturn.
“Previous observations suggested that brown dwarfs might have mottled surfaces, but now we can actually map them,” said Ian Crossfield from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the lead author of these findings. “Soon, we will be able to watch cloud patterns form, evolve, and dissipate on this brown dwarf — eventually, exometeorologists may be able to predict whether a visitor to Luhman 16B could expect clear or cloudy skies.”
Surface map of Luhman 16B created from VLT observations. ESO/I. Crossfield
The dwarf, named WISE J104915.57-531906.1B (and informally known as Luhman 16B) is one in a binary pair located 6 light-years away. These are the closest known brown dwarfs to our solar system and the third closest star system overall.
Since brown dwarfs are a kind of missing link between the coolest stars and the most massive “hot Jupiters,” learning how to accurately observe their changing weather will help astronomers be able to do the same on actual exoplanets.
It’s kind of like training wheels for future exometeorologists.
“Our brown dwarf map helps bring us one step closer to the goal of understanding weather patterns in other solar systems. From an early age I was brought up to appreciate the beauty and utility of maps. It’s exciting that we’re starting to map objects out beyond the Solar System!” — Ian Crossfield, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy
The team’s paper “A Global Cloud Map of the Nearest Known Brown Dwarf” will be published in the January 30 issue of the journal Nature.
Source: ESO news release