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Milky Way could have 100 billion brown dwarfs

Friday 07 July 2017

Our galaxy could have at least 100 billion brown dwarfs, according to research by an international team led by Dr Koraljka Muzic, University of Lisbon, and Dr Aleks Scholz at the University of St Andrews.

Dr Scholz presented a survey of dense star clusters, where brown dwarfs are abundant, at the National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Hull on Thursday 6 July, outlining the team’s research.

Brown dwarfs are objects intermediate in mass between stars and planets, with masses too low to sustain stable hydrogen fusion in their core, the hallmark of stars like the Sun. After the initial discovery of brown dwarfs in 1995, scientists quickly realised that they are a natural by-product of processes that primarily lead to the formation of stars and planets.

All of the thousands of brown dwarfs found so far are relatively close to the Sun, the overwhelming majority within 1500 light years, simply because these objects are faint and therefore difficult to observe. Most of those detected are located in nearby star forming regions, which are all fairly small and have a low density of stars.

In 2006 the team began a new search for brown dwarfs, observing five nearby star forming regions. The Substellar Objects in Nearby Young Clusters (SONYC) survey included the star cluster NGC 1333, 1000 light years away in the constellation of Perseus. That object had five brown dwarfs for every ten stars, a higher proportion than seen before.

To establish whether NGC 1333 was unusual, in 2016 the team turned to another more distant star cluster, RCW 38, in the constellation of Vela. This has a high density of more massive stars, and very different conditions to other clusters.

RCW 38 is 5500 light years away, meaning that the brown dwarfs are both faint and hard to pick out next to the brighter stars. To get a clear image, Dr Scholz and Dr Muzic used the Adaptive Optics camera NACO on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, observing the cluster for a total of three hours, and combining this with earlier work.

The researchers found just as many brown dwarfs in RCW38 – five for every ten stars – and realised that the environment where the stars form, whether stars are more or less massive, tightly packed or less crowded, has only a small effect on how brown dwarfs form.

Dr Scholz says: “We’ve found a lot of brown dwarfs in these clusters. And whatever the cluster type, the brown dwarfs are really common. Brown dwarfs form alongside stars in clusters, so our work suggests there are a huge number of brown dwarfs out there.”

From the SONYC survey, Dr Scholz and Dr Muzic estimate that our galaxy, the Milky Way, has a minimum of between 25 and 100 billion brown dwarfs. There are many smaller, fainter brown dwarfs too, so this could be a significant underestimate, and confirms these dim objects are ubiquitous.

Image caption

False-colour near-infrared image of the core of the young massive cluster RCW 38 taken with the adaptive-optics camera NACO at the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. RCW 38 lies at a distance of about 5500 light years from the Sun. The field of view of the central image is approximately 1 arc minute, or 1.5 light years across. The insets, each spanning about 0.07 light years on a side, show a subset of the faintest and least massive cluster candidate brown dwarfs (circled) of RCW 38 discovered in this new image. These candidate brown dwarfs might weigh only a few tens of Jupiter masses, or about 100 times less than the most massive stars seen towards the centre of the image.

Credit for both images: Koraljka Muzic, University of Lisbon, Portugal/Aleks Scholz, University of St Andrews, UK/Rainer Schoedel, University of Granada, Spain/Vincent Geers, ATC Edinburgh, UK/Ray Jayawardhana, York University, Canada/Joana Ascenso, University of Lisbon, University of Porto, Portugal/Lucas Cieza, University Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile. The study is based on observations conducted with the VLT at the European Southern Observatory.

Further information

This study has been submitted to Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The results were presented as part of a talk at NAM 2017 by co-author and SONYC lead Dr Aleks Scholz on Thursday 7 July.

Running from 2 to 7 July, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2017 (NAM 2017) takes place this year at the University of Hull. NAM 2017 will bring together around 500 space scientists and astronomers to discuss the latest research in their respective fields. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Follow on Twitter.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow on Facebook or Twitter.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science. It has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC’s Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory. Follow on Twitter.

Dr Aleks Scholz is available for interview via the Communications Office – contacts below.  

St Andrews has an in-house ISDN line for radio and a Globelynx camera for TV interviews. To arrange an interview please contact the Communications Office in the first instance.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office. Contact Christine Tudhope on 01334 467320/07526 624 243 or