Astronomers have used NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, and the Spitzer Space Telescope to discover a new star-like body that's “as frosty as Earth's North Pole,” the space agency announced Friday.
The object, which is categorized as the coldest “brown dwarf” ever known, is named WISE J085510.83-071442.5. According to scientists, the images from the space telescopes also revealed that star-like body is 7.2 light-years away from Earth, making it the fourth-closest system to the sun.
"It's very exciting to discover a new neighbor of our solar system," Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, said in a statement. "And given its extreme temperature, it should tell us a lot about the atmospheres of planets, which often have similarly cold temperatures."
Although brown dwarfs start their lives like stars, they lack the mass to burn nuclear fuel and radiate starlight. The newly discovered brown dwarf has a temperature between minus 54 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 48 to minus 13 degrees Celsius), compared to previous record-holders for coldest brown dwarfs that were about room temperature, scientists said.
The new brown dwarf, which can be invisible when viewed by visible-light telescopes, appeared to be moving very fast in the WISE data, leading astronomers to believe that there was something unusual about the object.
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After noticing the fast motion of WISE J085510.83-071442.5 in March 2013, Luhman analyzed additional images taken with the Spitzer and the Gemini South telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile to determine the temperature of the brown dwarf.
On the other hand, combined detections from WISE and Spitzer, taken from different positions around the sun, helped astronomers measure the object’s distance through the parallax effect.
“This is the same principle that explains why your finger, when held out right in front of you, appears to jump from side to side when you alternate left- and right-eye views,” NASA said.
In March 2013, Luhman used WISE data to uncover a pair of much warmer brown dwarfs at a distance of 6.5 light years from Earth, making that system the third closest to the sun.