Sand clouds are common in atmospheres of brown dwarfs

Clouds of silicates confirm an old theory and reveal how these failed stars live

a brown dwarf, a failed star, illustrated against a black background

Brown dwarfs (one illustrated) have clouds made of sand minerals that grow and evolve throughout the dwarf’s lifetime.


Clouds of sand can condense, grow and disappear in some extraterrestrial atmospheres. A new look at old data shows that clouds made of hot silicate minerals are common in celestial objects known as brown dwarfs.

“This is the first full contextual understanding of any cloud outside the solar system,” says astronomer Stanimir Metchev of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. Metchev’s colleague Genaro Suárez presented the new work July 4 at the Cool Stars meeting in Toulouse, France.

Clouds come in many flavors in our solar system, from Earth’s puffs of water vapor to Jupiter’s bands of ammonia. Astronomers have also inferred the presence of “extrasolar clouds” on planets outside the solar system (SN: 9/11/19).

But the only extrasolar clouds that have been directly detected were in the skies of brown dwarfs — dim, ruddy orbs that are too large to be planets but too small and cool to be stars. In 2004, astronomers used NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to observe brown dwarfs and spotted spectral signatures of sand — more specifically, grains of silicate minerals such as quartz and olivine. A few more tentative examples of sand clouds were spotted in 2006 and 2008.

Floating in one of these clouds would feel like being in a sandstorm, says planetary scientist Mark Marley of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who was involved in one of those early discoveries. “If you could take a scoop out of it and bring it home, you would have hot sand.”

Astronomers at the time found six examples of these silicate clouds. “I kind of thought that was it,” Marley says. Theoretically, there should be a lot more than six brown dwarfs with sandy skies. But part of the Spitzer telescope ran out of coolant in 2009 and was no longer able to measure similar clouds’ chemistry.

While Suárez was looking into archived Spitzer data for a different project, he realized there were unpublished or unanalyzed data on dozens of brown dwarfs. So he analyzed all of the low-mass stars and brown dwarfs that Spitzer had ever observed, 113 objects in total, 68 of which had never been published before, the team reports in the July Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“It’s very impressive to me that this was hiding in plain sight,” Marley says.

Not every brown dwarf in the sample showed strong signs of silicate clouds. But together, the brown dwarfs followed a clear trend. For dwarfs and low-mass stars hotter than about 1700˚ Celsius, silicates exist as a vapor, and the objects show no signs of clouds. But below that temperature, signs of clouds start to appear, becoming thickest around 1300˚ C. Then the signal disappears for brown dwarfs that are cooler than about 1000˚ C, as the clouds sink deep into the atmospheres.

The finding confirms previous suspicions that silicate clouds are widespread and reveals the conditions under which they form. Because brown dwarfs are born hot and cool down over time, most of them should see each phase of sand cloud evolution as they age. “We are learning how these brown dwarfs live,” Suárez says. Future research can extrapolate the results to better understand atmospheres in planets like Jupiter, he notes.

The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope will also study atmospheric chemistry in exoplanets and brown dwarfs and will specifically look for clouds (SN: 10/6/21). Marley looks forward to combining the trends from this study with future results from JWST. “It’s really going to be a renaissance in brown dwarf science,” he says.

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