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Weather on Luhman, Cloudy With a Chance of Molten Iron Rain

This artist's impression is based on the first-ever map of the weather on the surface of the nearest brown dwarf to Earth, informally known as Luhman16B, recreated from VLT observations. Credit: ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger
You think the weather is bad on Earth lately. On Luhman 16B, a hybrid planet-star located 6.7 light years away, scientists say it's raining molten iron, research released on Wednesday shows.

The first weather maps from this dim, gaseous object known as a brown dwarf, show a complex structure of patchy clouds, comprised of liquid iron and other minerals stewing in scorching temperatures, a pair of studies show.

Computer models indicate that as a brown dwarfs cools, liquid droplets containing iron and other minerals form in their atmospheres. The new studies indicate the droplets gather into patchy clouds, which then rain down.

Brown dwarfs are bigger than Jupiter-sized planets, but too small for nuclear fusion, the signature process that gives a star its shine. Also known as “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are born hot and emit faint but telltale infrared light as they slowly cool.

Temperatures in the clouds of Luhman 16B, for example, are 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit (927 degrees Celsius).

Only a few hundred or so brown dwarfs have been found so far.

Scientists devised an innovative technique that not only could detect how Luhman 16B, located 40 trillion miles (64 trillion km), varied in brightness, but also whether light and dark features were moving toward or away from observing telescopes.

The information was then compiled into cloud maps.

“Soon, we will be able to watch cloud patterns form, evolve and dissipate on this brown dwarf,” astronomer Ian Crossfield, with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, said in a statement.

Scientists expect to use similar techniques to understand the weather and composition of planets beyond the solar system.

The studies are published in the journals Nature and the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Video Credit: ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger