According to a new study, citizen scientists have recently discovered nearly 100 brown dwarfs located fairly close to our sun. Several members of the public, which includes volunteers as well as professional scientists, were part of a citizen science project that was funded by NASA and called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.
During the project, over 100,000 citizen scientists analyzed data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (or NEOWISE) satellite as well as other data that was gathered by WISE between 2010 and 2011 in addition to information collected from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab.
They were able to locate 95 brown dwarfs which are space objects that are too small to be stars but too big to be planets. And they are relatively close to our sun with some of them being just a few dozen light-years away.
Even though they are called brown dwarfs, they are actually orange/red or magenta in color. While some brown dwarfs can reach temperatures as hot as thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, they can also be cooler than the degree at which water boils, and some have temperatures pretty close to Earth which would allow them to have water clouds.
The coldest brown dwarf ever found is called WISE 0855 and it was discovered in 2014. It has temperatures of around minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 degrees Celsius) which is by far the coldest brown dwarf that has been detected. In fact, it is so cold that some experts questioned whether it was instead a rogue exoplanet.
It’s quite exciting to think that citizen scientists made such a significant discovery. “These Backyard Worlds discoveries show that members of the public can play an important role in reshaping our scientific understanding of our solar neighborhood,” said Aaron Meisner, who is an assistant scientist at NSF’s NOIRLab and the lead author of the study.
Jackie Faherty from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and who is a co-author of the study, weighed in by stating, “This paper is evidence that the solar neighborhood is still uncharted territory and citizen scientists are excellent astronomical cartographers,” adding, “Mapping the coldest brown dwarfs down to the lowest masses gives us key insights into the low-mass star-formation process while providing a target list for detailed studies of the atmospheres of Jupiter analogs.”
In total, volunteers for Backyard Worlds have so far detected over 1,500 cold worlds pretty close to our sun and the newly discovered 95 brown dwarfs were the most ever found through a citizen science project. Many more are probably just waiting to be found and the James Webb Space Telescope will surely help with the findings when it is launched next year.