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UT astronomers identify young ‘brown dwarf’

Team includes 20-year-old sophomore

A University of Toledo astronomy team that includes a sophomore student found what researchers have identified as a new and very young object in space.

Astrophysics major James Windsor of Paulding, Ohio, started working on the project as a freshman and will be listed as a co-author of an upcoming study about the discovery. He is 20.

WISEA-jpg

This artist’s rendering depicts an object newly identified by astronomers at the University of Toledo, which announced its discovery Wednesday. The object is thought to be a free-floating object known as a ‘brown dwarf’ and is about 100 light years from Earth.

NASA/JPL-CALTECH Enlarge

The free-floating, planetary-mass object he helped pinpoint is considered, in space terms, downright youthful. The brown dwarf is about 10 million years old.

UT and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration this week announced the discovery in advance of an article to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The newly found object is about five to 10 times Jupiter’s mass, belongs to the young star family TW Hydrae, and is about 100 light years from Earth.

NASA called the brown dwarf one of the lowest-mass and youngest ever found.

“This is a pretty big deal,” said Adam Schneider, a post-doctoral researcher in UT’s department of physics and astronomy and the study’s lead author.

The study’s other authors include Michael Cushing, an associate professor of astronomy at UT and Ritter Planetarium director; Davy Kirkpatrick of NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology; and Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Windsor said the ability to do such research as an undergraduate student is one reason he chose to attend UT.

His work entailed searching a database of thousands of objects in space.

“We were looking for brown dwarfs specifically,” he said. “This one had a specific color that implied it was very young.”

The object was identified using images from two sky surveys conducted about 10 years apart. Once researchers isolated this object as one of particular interest they followed up with observations using an infrared telescope in Hawaii that confirmed their discovery, Mr. Schneider said.

The object’s age makes it especially interesting because it gives researchers an idea of how brown dwarfs form and what one looks like when it’s young.

The object is not considered a planet because it does not orbit a star. Stars’ brightness can make studying nearby exoplanets challenging, but because the brown dwarf doesn’t have a host star, researchers expect other astronomers will point their telescopes at it to learn more.

“I think the coolest thing about this object is the idea that it’s basically as close as we can get to a planet but out there on its own. The idea of it not orbiting a star is actually really important,” Mr. Schneider said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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