NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has been turning up a new
crowd of stars close to solar system, the coldest of the brown dwarf family of failed stars. As said Davy Kirkpatrick of the WISE science team at NASA’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena this is a really illuminating result. Now that they are finally seeing the solar neighborhood with keener, infrared vision, the little guys aren’t as prevalent as they once thought. Previous estimates had predicted as many brown dwarfs as typical stars, but the new initial tally from WISE shows just one brown dwarf for every six stars. It’s the cosmic equivalent to finally being able to see down a mysterious, gated block and finding only a few homes. Nonetheless, the observations are providing crucial information about how these exotic worlds form, and hinting at what their population densities might be like in our galaxy and beyond. WISE was launched in 2009 and surveyed the entire sky in infrared light in 2010. One of the mission’s main science goals was to survey the sky for the elusive brown dwarfs. These small bodies start their lives like stars, but lack the bulk required to burn nuclear fuel. With time, they cool and fade, making them difficult to find. Improvements in WISE’s infrared vision over past missions have allowed it to pick up the faint glow of many of these hidden objects. In August 2011, the mission announced the discovery of the coolest brown dwarfs spotted yet, a new class of stars called Y dwarfs. One of the Y dwarfs is less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius), or about room temperature, making it the coldest star-like body known. Since then, the WISE science team has surveyed the entire landscape around our sun and discovered 200 brown dwarfs, including 13 Y dwarfs. Determining the distances to these objects is a key factor in knowing their population density in our solar neighborhood. After carefully measuring the distance to several of the coldest brown dwarfs via a method called parallax, the scientists were able to estimate the distances to all the newfound brown dwarfs. They concluded that about 33 brown dwarfs reside within 26 light-years of sun. There are 211 stars within this same volume of space, so that means there are about six stars for every brown dwarf.