Astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have found a brown dwarf (an object more massive than Jupiter but smaller than a star) with infrared emission from methane, likely due to energy in its upper atmosphere. This is an unexpected discovery because the brown dwarf, W1935, is cold and lacks a host star; therefore, there is no obvious source for the upper atmosphere energy. The team speculates that the methane emission may be due to processes generating aurorae.
These findings are being presented at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in New Orleans.
To help explain the mystery of the infrared emission from methane, the team turned to our solar system. Methane in emission is a common feature in gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The upper-atmosphere heating that powers this emission is linked to aurorae.
On Earth, aurorae are created when energetic particles blown into space from the Sun are captured by Earth’s magnetic field. They cascade down into our atmosphere along magnetic field lines near Earth’s poles, colliding with gas molecules and creating eerie, dancing curtains of light. Jupiter and Saturn have similar auroral processes that involve interacting with the solar wind, but they also get auroral contributions from nearby active moons like Io (for Jupiter) and Enceladus (for Saturn).
For isolated brown dwarfs like W1935, the absence of a stellar wind to contribute to the auroral process and explain the extra energy in the upper atmosphere required for the methane emission is a mystery. The team surmises that either unaccounted internal processes like the atmospheric phenomena of Jupiter and Saturn, or external interactions with either interstellar plasma or a nearby active moon, may help account for the emission.
A Detective Story
The aurorae’s discovery played out like a detective story. A team led by Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was awarded time with the Webb…