Citizen scientists help create ‘most complete’ 3D map of brown dwarfs in Milky Way

Citizen scientists from NASA-funded Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 have now managed to create the ‘most complete’ three-dimensional map of 525 brown dwarfs in our cosmic Milky Way neighbourhood. The brown dwarfs are objects that are balls of gas not heavy enough to be stars, since they cannot power themselves through nuclear fusion the way stars do, according to a statement from NASA. While they are named brown dwarfs, they appear magenta or orange-red if a person could see them close up.

Brown dwarfs can have temperatures of up to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, but the Y dwarfs may be below freezing temperatures and have clouds made of water, the space agency said. The map encompasses a radius of 65-light years, or about 400 trillion miles. NASA added that citizen scientists have been searching for brown dwarf candidates as part of Backyard Worlds, using data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2010 and 2011 under its previous moniker, WISE, since 2017.

 Citizen scientists help create most complete 3D map of brown dwarfs in Milky Way

Earth surrounded by the nearest brown dwarfs, shown in red, against the backdrop of surrounding constellations. Image credits: NASA/Jacqueline Faherty/OpenSpace

By making a complete map of the objects, scientists can find out whether different kinds of brown dwarfs and are evenly distributed in the solar system’s neighbourhood. NASA said that telescopes can detect brown dwarfs because they emit heat in the form of infrared light, left over from their formation. The new citizen scientist project is the most complete map to date of L, T and Y dwarfs in the vicinity of the solar system.

[embedded content]

The study which was presented at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society had listed worldwide volunteers and high school students in the Pasadena, California. J Davy Kirkpatrick, lead author of the study and scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, said that without the citizen scientists, they could not have created such a comprehensive map in such a short time. Having the power of thousands of inquiring eyes on the data enables them to find brown dwarf candidates much faster, he added.

A statement from the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab revealed that a total of 525 brown dwarfs were mapped in the new 3D visualization, including 38 new brown dwarfs that were discovered by the citizen scientist group.