Disk Detective-using researchers have spotted a brown dwarf, plus protoplanetary disk, 332 light years from home.
Brown dwarfs are objects that are too big to be a planet, but too small to be a star. Formed by a gravitational collapse of gas and dust, like stars, the fusion process does not kick off within brown dwarfs, making for a dim object that is tricky for astronomers to observe.
Like a star, however, a brown dwarf may be surrounded by a disk of gas and debris left over from its formation, which might accumulate to create planets. Exactly what kind of planets might orbit a brown dwarf is up for debate.
Researchers, with help from citizen scientists flipping through images on the NASA science crowdsourcing project, Disk Detective, now reckon they have found a 3.7-million-year-old example lurking within the Earth's solar neighbourhood, according to MIT.
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Approximately 102 parsecs (333 light-years) from Earth (Alpha Centauri is a little over one parsec away), the proximity makes the disk a good candidate for further study.
The newly discovered object, W1200-7845, was picked up by users of DiskDetective.org back in 2016. Scientists took a closer look using an infrared instrument on the Magellan 6.5-metre telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and confirmed that it was indeed a disk. The gang plans to use Chile's Atacama Large Millimeter Array in order to work out what the disk is made of, its mass and size.
The data may also provide clues regarding the conditions under which planets form.
Disk Detective itself is a NASA-led crowdsourced science project. Launched in 2014, users could search through images including those captured by the agency's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft and classify them for further investigation.
The project, a collaboration with Zooniverse, went on hiatus from April 2019. A revamped version is due in the coming weeks, replete with images from the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) for eager citizen scientists to pore over.
While the old site was all about finding disks around stars or other objects (like brown dwarfs), the new one aims to pick out "Peter Pan" disks, named because they are of an age where planets should have formed, but simply never grew up.
Disk Detective found eight of the things, each at least 20 million years old, and the team hopes that more will be spotted with the update, assisting research into the conditions under which planets come into being. ®