Swilling Stormy Stars present on cool celestial orbs

Swirling, stormy clouds may be ever-present on cool celestial orbs
called brown dwarfs
. New observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space
Telescope suggest that most brown dwarfs are roiling with one or more
planet-size storms akin to Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot.” “As the brown dwarfs spin on their axis, the alternation of what we
think are cloud-free and cloudy regions produces a periodic brightness
variation that we can observe,” said Stanimir Metchev of the University
of Western Ontario, Canada. “These are signs of patchiness in the cloud
cover.”
In a Spitzer program named “Weather on Other Worlds,” astronomers
used the infrared space telescope to watch 44 brown dwarfs as they
rotated on their axis for up to 20 hours. Previous results had suggested
that some brown dwarfs have turbulent weather, so the scientists had
expected to see a small fraction vary in brightness over time. However,
to their surprise, half of the brown dwarfs showed the variations. When
you take into account that half of the objects would be oriented in such
a way that their storms would be either hidden or always in view and
unchanging, the results indicate that most, if not all, brown dwarfs are
racked by storms.
“We needed Spitzer to do this,” said Metchev. “Spitzer is in space,
above the thermal glow of the Earth’s atmosphere, and it has the
sensitivity required to see variations in the brown dwarfs’ brightness.”
The results led to another surprise as well. Some of the brown dwarfs
rotated much more slowly than any previously measured, a finding that
could not have been possible without Spitzer’s long, uninterrupted
observations from space. Astronomers had thought that brown dwarfs sped
up to very fast rotations when they formed and contracted, and that this
rotation didn’t wind down with age.
“We don’t yet know why these particular brown dwarfs spin so slowly,
but several interesting possibilities exist,” said Heinze.  “A brown
dwarf that rotates slowly may have formed in an unusual way — or it may
even have been slowed down by the gravity of a yet-undiscovered planet
in a close orbit around it.”
The work may lead to a better understanding of not just brown dwarfs
but their “little brothers”: the gas-giant planets. Researchers say that
studying the weather on brown dwarfs will open new windows onto weather
on planets outside our solar system, which are harder to study under
the glare of their stars. Brown dwarfs are weather laboratories for
planets, and, according to the new results, those laboratories are
everywhere.

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