So, I got accepted into a summer research program. They are going to pay me and everything, yay! Which is why I thought I should blog about my research.
What I am doing this summer is basically sift through infrared data and looking for object called brown dwarfs and classifying them. Brown dwarfs are in a way objects that represent the transitions between planets and stars. They are much more massive than planets, enough to have fused deuterium (hydrogen, but with a neutron) for a short while, but they are not massive enough to fuse regular hydrogen. The mass may range from 13 to 80 Jupiters. After the short lived deuterium fusion phase, they just start cooling down. They tend to emit most of the light in the near infrared zone. Size wise, they are not too different from Jupiter because the interior pressure is governed by electron degeneracy. Basically, the pressure of electrons due to them not being able to occupy the same energy states is what holds the object from further collapse. In a pressure dominated by degenerate matter, adding more mass doesn’t cause an object to grow much.
How does one empirically distinguish a brown dwarf from a low mass star? There is a simple test called the Lithium test. If one can detect lithium, it is probably a brown dwarf. Stars are hot enough to be able to fuse lithium, unlike brown dwarfs, and lithium fuses at a similar temperature to hydrogen. That said, the highest mass brown dwarfs can burn lithium, so at the high end range of brown dwarf mass, they are indistinguishable from stars. Well, there is another way, but it is harder to do. Basically, measure the temperature and mass of a brown dwarf binary. The theory is that an object of certain mass will have a different temperature curve as it ages than one of a different mass. If an object is massive enough to be a star, the temperature will stabilize due to sustained fusion, if not it keeps cooling down.
Before we go on, I would like to address how we can know what compounds such a distant object have. We look at the spectrum of light from the object, and see which wavelengths are missing. Certain compounds absorbs light at certain specific frequencies because of the way the electrons are configurated energy wise. Electrons can only occupy certain energies, and so they will absorb only light of certain energies. So, when you look at the spectrum of light coming off the planet, there will be chunks of light that will be missing corresponding to the energy absorbed. Imagine that the rainbow has various thin strips on it missing, that is what it is like.
Brown dwarfs come in two spectral type, the L type and the T type, with L being the hotter, more luminous type. The temperature itself is correlated with luminosity by the fourth power, so measuring luminosity gives you the temperature. The spectral types are related to what compounds one detects in the atmosphere. The L types have the temperature range of 1300 K to 2500 K. The hottest L type show vanadium oxide and titanium oxide absorption signatures in the spectra, and as the brown dwarf gets cooler, this transitions to a spectra with absorption due to metal hydride (FeH, MgH, CaH, etc) and Alkali metal compounds (NaI, KI, etc), while the metal oxide absorption disappears. The T type are objects below 1500 K, and the spectra contains absorptions from methane, water, ammonia, and CO. Does this mean that the transition of spectra represents another good way to gauge the temperature of the object? Yes for early L and late T. Not so much for the transition between late L to early T. In that section, the temperature doesn’t change very much while the spectra changes. A point of note is that the temperature/spectra correlation works much better with optical than infrared.
There is a reasonable explanation for the transitions of spectra a brown dwarf undergoes. As the brown dwarf cools, the metal oxides condense and fall off deeper into the atmosphere. This uncovers the spectra from the alkali metals and hydride metals. As the temperature goes lower to the T type level, clouds become an important component. This explains the rapid change in spectra with the slower change in temperature as this transition of dusty atmosphere occurs around a short range around 1400 K. At temperatures lower than 1400 K, the dust sinks and the metal hydrides condense while conditions are right for the reaction of CO+H2=H2O+CH4 occurs, meaning carbon monoxide with hydrogen reacts to for water and methane. This explains the methane absorption that dominates in the T brown dwarfs.
Finally, I would like to point out the model pointed out above for the brown dwarfs differs with metallicity. Metals in astronomy are all elements with higher atomic number than helium. Brown dwarfs are allowed to be more massive and hotter with less metal.
This is a basic summary of what we know about brown dwarfs. If you want to know more about them, you can of course go ahead and read what I linked below. There has also been some advances, like the discovery of below freezing brown dwarfs. And there are mysteries to be solved, like the fact that there are three scenarios for condensations and dusts that plays a key role in the late L to early T spectrum.
I have done all this preliminary reading. Hopefully I know what I will be doing. Granted, there will be some fumbling around as this is my first legit science project ever.
Source and reading materials
http://web.archive.org/web/20060928065124/http://www.carnegieinstitution.org/News4-3,2001.html (brown dwarf)