A Star With An Atmosphere

NASA’s Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes have found what appears to be a persistent storm that’s larger than Earth. In fact, it could swallow our planet some three times over. Remarkably, it is raging on a tiny star. For comparison, the star is about the size of Jupiter, with the storm itself being about the same size as big as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

John Gizis, of the University of Delaware, reports that his team knows that the storm has been ongoing for quite some time. he asserts, “the new-found storm has lasted at least two years, and probably longer.”

The study was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

This is the best evidence yet of cloudy storms on a star. Scientists assert that the storm is likely because the star, referred to as W1906+40, belongs to a thermally cool class of objects called L-dwarfs, which are cool enough to form their own atmosphere.

Its temperature is about 2,200 Kelvin (3,500 degrees Fahrenheit). That may sound scorching hot, but as NASA notes, “as far as stars go, it is relatively cool.”

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot compared to Earth via Michael Carroll
Kepler and Spitzer

The star was first discovered in 2011 by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. Spitzer had been studying W1906+40 and its atmosphere for two years when Gizis and his research team realized that the star also happened to be in Kepler’s sights.

Observations from Kepler found dips in starlight that weren’t caused by passing planets. Follow-up observations from Spitzer would find that these dips were caused by a massive cloudy storm, the diameter of which could contain three Earths.

The team intends to continue searching for other storms of the same type using the tandem of Spitzer and Kepler. “We don’t know if this kind of star storm is unique or common, and we don’t why it persists for so long,” says Gizis.


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