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11.10.16

Brown Dwarf Microlensing Diagram

For the first time, two space-based telescopes have teamed up with ground-based observatories to observe a microlensing event, a magnification of the light of a distant star due to the gravitational effects of an unseen object in the foreground.

In this case, the cause of the microlensing event was a brown dwarf, dubbed OGLE-2015-BLG-1319, orbiting a star. In terms of mass, brown dwarfs fall somewhere between the size of the largest planets and the smallest stars. Curiously, scientists have found that, for stars roughly the mass of our sun, less than 1 percent have a brown dwarf orbiting within 3 AU (1 AU is the distance between Earth and the sun). This newly discovered brown dwarf may fall in that distance range.

This microlensing event was observed by ground-based telescopes looking for these uncommon events, and subsequently seen by NASAs Spitzer and Swift space telescopes. As the diagram shows, Spitzer and Swift offer additional vantage points for viewing this chance alignment. While Swift orbits close to Earth, and saw (blue diamonds) essentially the same change in light that the ground-based telescopes measured (grey markers), Spitzers location much farther away from Earth gave it a very different perspective on the event (red circles).

In particular, Spitzers vantage point resulted in a time lag in the microlensing event it observed, compared to what was seen by Swift and the ground-based telescope. This offset allowed astronomers to determine the distance to OGLE-2015-BLG-1319 as well as its mass: around 30-65 times that of Jupiter.