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article imageFirst evidence of water discovered outside Solar System in clouds

By George McGinn     Aug 28, 2014 in Science
The first evidence of water outside our Solar System has been found 7.3 light-years from Earth in ice clouds on a brown dwarf star.
According to a report to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters:
"From models using a cloudless atmosphere and well reproduced by partly cloudy models (50%) containing sulfide and water ice clouds. Non-equilibrium chemistry or non-solar metallicity may change predictions, however using currently available model approaches, this is the first candidate outside our own solar system to have direct evidence for water clouds."
The study was led by Jacqueline Faherty of the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the astronomers on Faherty's team followed up its observation by using the Magellan Baade telescope in Chile when the team discovered that W0855 atmosphere is made up of about 50-percent cloud cover, where computer models indicated the clouds are a mixture of sulfide and water ice.
A brown dwarf star is a star that failed to form because they are not large enough to compress its core enough to start nuclear fusion.
The brown dwarf (W0855) from Faherty's study was first discovered by Kevin Luhman, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and is the coolest found by temperature, as announced back in April.
Luhman used NASA's WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) space telescope to image the star. The star has an average temperature from 8 degrees to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (-48 to -13 degrees Celsius) is the forth closest star to our Sun. The other stars are Alpha Centauri, Barnard’s star and Luhman 16.
Astronomers say they’ve discovered water ice clouds on a “brown dwarf” just 7.3 light-years fr...
Astronomers say they’ve discovered water ice clouds on a “brown dwarf” just 7.3 light-years from Earth – the first candidate outside our own solar system to have direct evidence of water clouds. (Illustration courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)
NASA/JPL-Caltech
Clouds of water and other chemicals are common within our Solar System, but impossible to see on planets past Mars due to each planet's atmosphere's.
And while atmospheric water vapor has been been found outside our Solar System, water in clouds have not.
And brown dwarf (W0855) raises the question how common is it to have similar cloud patterns, especially partly cloudy conditions as it exists on Earth, or is total cloud cover, such as on Venus, is typical throughout the universe.
“I’ve been obsessed with this object since its discovery,” Faherty told Science Magazine about W-855, which its size is estimated to be as large as Jupiter.
“I went to battle at the telescope to try and get this detection,” Faherty said. “I wanted to put war paint under my eyes and wear a bandanna, because I knew this was not going to be an easy thing to do. At the telescope, I’ve never been so nervous. I’ve never wanted clear conditions so badly.”
“It’s incredibly interesting,” said Jonathan Fortney of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s tentative, but it’s the first evidence for water clouds outside our solar system."
Cruz, an astronomer, helped to develop the models used by Faherty but wasn't involved in the discovery.
More about water clouds, brown dwarves, WISE telescope, NASA, Penn state
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