Astronomers discover massive storm raging on distant star

Artist's impression of W1906+40(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A team of astronomers making use of data collected by NASA's Kepler telescope has spotted a leviathan storm raging on the surface of a tiny, distant star. The storm, which is believed to be comfortably large enough to swallow three Earth-sized planets within its expanse, is comprised of clouds of tiny minerals and is thought to be similar in nature to Jupiter's "Great Red Spot".

The star on which the storm was discovered is nothing like the stellar body at the centre of our solar system. Known as W1906+40, it's located 53 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra, and belongs to a class of stars known as L-dwarfs. This type of star burns relatively cool, with surface temperatures of around 3,500º F (1,927º C, 2,200 Kelvin), allowing for the formation of extreme weather of the type recently observed on W1906+40.

Often stars of this type fail to maintain the atomic fusion reaction that causes stars to generate light, resulting in a failed star known as a brown dwarf. However, based on the estimated age of W1906+40, astronomers believe that the L-dwarf achieved and maintained atomic fusion.

The new study focussed on roughly two years of observational data collected Kepler, during which time it recorded periodic dips in brightness from W1906+40. This pattern of dimming would ordinarily result from an occultation that takes place when an orbiting exoplanet passes between Kepler and the parent star, blocking its light in the process.

However, based on previous observations made in 2011 by the Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers knew that the dimming they were observing was in fact not from a passing planet, but due instead to some other phenomenon.

Initially, researchers postulated that the dimming could have been the result of a vast sunspot present on the surface of W1906+40. This type of solar activity occurs when the surface temperature of a star drops in a localized area due to a concentration in the stellar body's magnetic field.

The follow-up revealed that the culprit for the unusual readings was a huge solar storm. Similar in nature to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, the newly-discovered storm rotates around the star roughly once every nine hours, and has been observed to have lasted for over two years.

Moving forward, the team hope to observe other known stars and brown dwarfs in search of similar weather systems.

A paper on the discovery has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA

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