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Now for the weather on Luhman: Cloudy with a chance of molten iron rain


This artist's concept shows what the weather might look like on cool bodies known as brown dwarfs. These giant balls of gas start out like stars, but lack the mass to sustain nuclear fusion at their cores, and instead, fade and cool with time. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)/University of Western Ontario/Stony Brook University)

You think the weather is bad on Earth lately? On Luhman 16B, a hybrid planet-star located 6.7 light-years away, it’s raining molten iron, research released last week shows.

The first weather maps from this dim, gaseous object known as a brown dwarf show a complex structure of patchy clouds of liquid iron and other minerals stewing in scorching temperatures.

Computer models indicate that as a brown dwarfs cools, droplets of liquid containing iron and other minerals form in their atmospheres. The new studies indicate the droplets gather into clouds, which then rain down.

Brown dwarfs are bigger than Jupiter but too small for nuclear fusion, the signature process that gives a star its shine. Also known as failed stars, brown dwarfs are born hot and emit faint but telltale infrared light as they slowly cool.

Temperatures in the clouds of Luhman 16B are about 2,000 degrees.

This photo shows the first ever map of the weather on the surface of the nearest brown dwarf to Earth created by ESO's Very Large Telescope. An international team has made a chart of the dark and light features informally known as Luhman 16B and is one of two recently discovered brown dwarfs forming a pair only six light-years from the Sun. The figure shows the object at six equally spaced times as it rotates once on its axis. (AFP/European Southern Observatory/I. Crossfield/Getty Images)

Only a few hundred or so brown dwarfs have been found so far.

Scientists devised an innovative technique to detect not only how Luhman 16B varies in brightness but also whether light and dark features were moving toward or away from observing telescopes.

The information was then compiled into cloud maps.

“Soon, we will be able to watch cloud patterns form, evolve and dissipate on this brown dwarf,” astronomer Ian Crossfield of the Max Planck Institute in Germany said in a statement.

Scientists expect to use similar techniques to understand the weather and composition of planets beyond the solar system. The studies are published in the journals Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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