Old and Cold

Look: NASA spots an unusual object in deep space

Giphy

NASA/JPL-Caltech

See this colorful sphere that looks a bit like Jupiter?

It’s not quite a star and not quite a planet: it’s a brown dwarf.

Brown dwarfs are bigger than planets but smaller than stars. They glow dully but lack nuclear fusion — the chemical process that causes stars to shine.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers thought they understood brown dwarfs — until they looked a little closer at a mysterious space object.

Its scientific name is WISEA J153429.75-104303.3, but it’s nicknamed “The Accident.”

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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The Accident was discovered — on accident, of course — by a citizen scientist who spotted it in NASA’s NEOWISE telescope data.

IPAC/Caltech

In 2009, NEOWISE snapped the first shot of the brown dwarf, but it took years before it was recognized as such.

That’s because of its unusual properties — it’s much colder and older than other brown dwarfs, and harder to spot.

Brown dwarfs mostly emit infrared light, which is invisible to the naked eye.

Because of its advanced age, The Accident was exceptionally tough to spot because of the little light it emits.

NASA via Giphy

IPAC/Caltech

After more recent observations, researchers predict that The Accident has been around for 10 to 13 billion years.

That’s at least 2x times the average age of other brown dwarfs.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Caselden

This is what The Accident looks like from 50 light-years away — just a small, dark speck moving through deep space.

“We expected that brown dwarfs this old exist, but we also expected them to be incredibly rare. The chance of finding one so close to the solar system could be a lucky coincidence, or it tells us that they’re more common than we thought.”

Federico Marocco, astrophysicist who led recent observations of The Accident

IPAC/Caltech

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Caselden

It’s an accident that’ll forever alter our understanding of brown dwarfs — and shape our knowledge of their origins, as well.

Read more stories about space here.