|Armed with one of the largest telescopes in the world, the aptly named Very Large Telescope at the ESO Observatory in Chile, astronomers are conducting a search for what they once were certain had to be a brown dwarf star. The only problem is that now the star seems to have vanished without evidence.
What happened? Brown dwarfs, compared to their better known red dwarf counterparts are significantly cooler, dimmer objects which at a glance bear more resemblance to planets than to other stars.
Although they release heat and bear a chemical composition similar to that of the sun, astronomers tend to refer to them as “failed stars,” since they are too small to set off any thermonuclear reactions within their cores. This particular vanishing dwarf was thought to be part of a double-star system, the V471 Tauri, located within the Taurus constellation, only 163 light years from Earth. Within this system, the stars orbit each other in 12 hour intervals, which causes the brightness to diminish every six hours, when one star crosses directly in front of the other.
However, the timing of this eclipse never happened at an entirely predictable pace, leading the researchers to suspect that a brown dwarf’s gravitational pull was pushing on the stars and causing the lapse – it’s the only thing consistent with the minimal lapsing patterns. With the use of a new powerful camera called SPHERE, they set out to plot out the location of the brown dwarf, but found nothing where they predicted it would be.
“This is how science works,” said Adam Hardy, the study’s lead author who remains undaunted by the road ahead. The new study was published this week by the journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters. “Observations with new technology can either confirm or, as in this case, disprove earlier ideas.”
Perhaps most intriguing is that while a brown dwarf appears to be hiding from them, the cluster it waxes influence over is among the brightest and largest of deep-sky objects visible in the evening sky.
The binary star system is found in what astronomers call the Hyades cluster, named for the nymphs of Greek mythology who are responsible for the rain.