Friday, July 18, 2014

What would a brown dwarf look like?

I've been studying brown dwarf stars for almost three years now.  They are fascinating objects, more massive and hotter than planets but smaller and cooler than stars, with clouds of hot sand and molten iron vapor in their atmospheres.  They glow brightest at infrared wavelengths that the human eye can't see, and we usually study them at these wavelengths.  Recently, however, I've been working on a project studying them at the extreme red edge of the optical -- that is, at wavelengths near those that we can see (it turns out we can learn some unique information about their clouds at these wavelengths).  This has led me to produce an image something like what a human might see, if we could look at a brown dwarf through a powerful enough telescope (or get close enough).  It still isn't quite right, because it makes use of some information from light at wavelengths just a bit too long for our eyes to detect, but it's the closest that I know of to a true-color view of a brown dwarf:

The brown dwarf (called WISE 0819-0335) is the tiny red star in the center.  And that's the main impression a brown dwarf would make, if you could see one with your own eyes through a powerful enough telescope: it would be faint, and deep-red.  Has anyone done this?  I don't know, but I think not.  You'd have to put an eyepiece in one of the most powerful telescopes in the world (which normally use only electronic imaging equipment). Even then you'd only have a chance at seeing the very brightest brown dwarfs, and they'd probably be too faint for color vision -- you'd just see a faint grayish star.  We'd need even bigger telescopes (or better yet, a starship) to see this kind of view for real.

What if you could get really close to the brown dwarf -- close enough that it would appear not just as a red-hued point of light but as a huge orb out the windows of your starship?  It would still look deep-red, and unlike the Sun and most other stars seen up close, it would be dim enough that you could stare at it without hurting your eyes.  According to some of the latest research on brown dwarfs (including my own), it would probably have dramatic cloud features.  Thick, high-altitude clouds would glow only dimly, while through huge rents in them you would see down into the hotter, much brighter deep regions of the brown dwarf.  Powerful winds and possibly storms full of lightning would be constantly churning and shifting the glowing clouds.  It would be worth a journey of a few light years to see.

No comments:

Post a Comment