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The Next Big Future article Rogue Exoplanet 12.7 times bigger than Jupiter is 20 light years away

SIMP J01365663+0933473 has a magnetic field more than 200 times stronger than Jupiter’s. The object was originally detected in 2016 as one of five brown dwarfs the scientists studied with the VLA to gain new knowledge about magnetic fields and the mechanisms by which some of the coolest such objects can produce strong radio emission. Brown dwarf masses are notoriously difficult to measure, and at the time, the object was thought to be an old and much more massive brown dwarf.

Is this true? Are brown dwarf masses notoriously difficult to measure? Naively, it seems to me if I had brightness at a few wavelengths I could deduce a temperature, and if I had a distance, at least for a blackbody I'd know the area as well.

Are one or both of these in fact difficult to get, or is there something else I'm missing?

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you find the original research article? $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Aug 5 '18 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries I only know about this announcement: public.nrao.edu/news/planetary-mass-powerhouse but I'm guessing properties of brown dwarfs should be general enough that a specific paper won't be necessary. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 5 '18 at 13:20
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Yes, they are difficult to measure. The only way to measure a brown dwarf mass is if it is in a binary system. The binary frequency of brown dwarfs is low - perhaps 10-15%.

Having found your binary system, then it has to be wide enough to resolve with your telescope, but not so wide that Kepler's third law means it takes centuries to do an orbit. The low mass of brown dwarfs does not help here. To have an orbit of say a decade or less means they have to orbit close to the other object. This in turn means adaptive optics are required.

Having said all that, the masses of quite a few brown dwarfs have been measured, so it is not extraordinarily difficult.

The object talked about in the article is not in a close binary, so it's mass cannot be measured, it can only be estimated indirectly. But here come the difficulties. To estimate the mass requires accurate calculations of the evolutionary tracks of brown dwarfs. The measurements of brown dwarf masses in binaries indicates that we do not have these. Secondly, to use the evolutionary tracks requires a luminosity (and therefore a distance), but because brown dwarfs are cooling objects, you also need an age. In general, unless the brown dwarf can be associated with a group of other stars with known age then this isn't possible. Measuring the temperature of a brown dwarf isn't helpful because the cooling tracks are very close together in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and in any case, it is very difficult because brown dwarfs are nowhere near blackbodies and their atmospheres are still poorly understood.

In this case, it seems that the brown dwarf has been newly associated with an (assumed to be) coeval group of stars at 200 Myr. Thus its luminosity can give a (highly) model-dependent mass. I cannot examine the details as the claimed published research cannot be found!

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, this answer is very helpful, especially "...brown dwarfs are nowhere near blackbodies and their atmospheres are still poorly understood." Even for an object that was believed to be a blackbody (e.g. an asteroid) there's still emissivity to contend with, so it would still be model-dependent. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 5 '18 at 13:18

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