Astronomers Detect Monstrous Aurora Beyond our Solar System

posted: 07/30/15
by: Ian O'Neill for Discovery News
Monstrous aurora
Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

For the first time, astronomers have detected an aurora erupting beyond the solar system, giving us a profound glimpse at the magnetism surrounding a brown dwarf, or "failed star."

Until now, the only aurorae astronomers have witnessed have been located on planets within our own star system. The sun produces a steady stream of electrically charged particles, called ions, that wash throughout the solar system as the solar wind and intermittent coronal mass ejections. These ions go on to interact with planetary magnetic fields and atmospheres to generate beautiful lightshows.

In the case of Earth, powerful geomagnetic storms can be triggered when the sun's magnetic field, loaded with ions, interacts with our global magnetosphere. Should this happen, ions from the sun are funneled into higher latitudes, which then interact with our atmosphere, generating Northern and Southern Lights -- the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, respectively.

Likewise, aurorae have been observed on Jupiter, Saturn and other planets in the solar system that possess a magnetic field and atmosphere.

Now astronomers have confirmed the first ever "exo"-aurora, an aurora erupting on a celestial object well beyond the confines of our solar system. But the most fascinating thing about this discovery is that this aurora wasn't detected at an exoplanet, it was detected at a brown dwarf.

"All the magnetic activity we see on this object can be explained by powerful auroras," said Gregg Hallinan, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in a news release. "This indicates that auroral activity replaces solar-like coronal activity on brown dwarfs and smaller objects."

Brown dwarfs are a mysterious class of object that forms a bridge between stars and planets. They possess characteristics of both, but cannot be clearly defined as either. As they are lower mass objects than stars that maintain nuclear fusion in their core, brown dwarfs are often referred to as "failed stars" -- they are not massive enough to sustain fusion for long periods of time.

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