Astronomers Discover Ancient “Failed Star” With Lithium Deposits Intact

Different Levels of Preservation and Destruction of Lithium

The Spanish-Mexican team has found that the boundary between those objects which destroy lithium and those which preserve it lies at 51.5 times the mass of Jupiter. The brown dwarf Reid 1B is a major deposit of lithium which will never be destroyed. Planets such as Jupiter and the Earth are even less massive and do not destroy their lithium. The Sun has destroyed all the lithium that was in its nucleus and preserves some in its upper layers, which are slowly mixing with its interior. Credit: Gabriel Pérez Díaz, SMM (IAC)

A team of researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE), Mexico, has discovered lithium in the oldest and coldest brown dwarf where the presence of this valuable element has been confirmed so far. This substellar object, called Reid 1B, preserves intact the earliest known lithium deposit in our cosmic neighborhood, dating back to a time before the formation of the binary system to which it belongs. The discovery was made using the OSIRIS spectrograph on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma), in the Canary Islands. The study has just been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Brown dwarfs, also known as “coffee-colored dwarfs” or “failed stars” are the natural link between stars and planets. They are more massive than Jupiter but now sufficiently to burn hydrogen, which is the fuel the stars use to shine. For that reason, these substellar objects were not observed until observers detected them in the mid-1990s. They are particularly interesting because it was predicted that some of them could preserve intact their content of lithium, sometimes known as “white petroleum” because of its rarity and relevance.

In the past twenty years, astronomers have detected and followed the orbital motions of binaries formed by brown dwarfs in the solar neighborhood. They have determined their masses dynamically using Kepler’s laws, the mathematical formulae produced in the XVII century by Johannes Kepler to describe the motions of astronomical bodies moving under the effects of their mutual gravitation, such as the system formed by the Earth and the Sun. In some of these systems, the primary component has a mass sufficient to burn lithium while the secondary may not have this mass. However, until now the theoretical models had not been put to the test.

Using the OSIRIS spectrograph on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC, or Grantecan) currently the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world, at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (ORM), a team of researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) made high sensitivity spectroscopic observations, between February and August this year, of two binaries whose components are brown dwarfs.

They did not detect lithium in three of them, but they did find it in Reid 1B, the faintest and coolest of the four. Doing this they made a remarkable discovery, a deposit of cosmic lithium which is not destroyed, whose origin dates back before the formation of the system to which Reid 1B belongs. It is, in fact, the coolest, faintest extrasolar object where lithium has been found, in a quantity 13 thousand times greater than the amount there is on Earth. This object, which has an age of 1.100 million years, and a dynamical mass 41 times bigger than that of Jupiter (the largest planet in the Solar System), is 16.9 light-years away from us.

A chest of hidden treasure

Observations of lithium in brown dwarfs allow us to estimate their masses with a degree of accuracy, based on nuclear reactions. The thermonuclear masses found this way must be consistent with the dynamical masses found, with less uncertainty, from orbital analysis. However, the researchers have found that the lithium is preserved up to a dynamical mass which is 10% lower than that predicted by the most recent theoretical models. This discrepancy seems to be significant and suggests that there is something in the behavior of brown dwarfs that we still don’t understand.

“We have been following the trail of lithium in brown dwarfs for three decades,” says Eduardo Lorenzo Martín Guerrero de Escalante, Research Professor of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) at the IAC who is the first author of the article, “and finally we have been able to make a precise determination of the boundary in mass between its preservation and its destruction, and compare this with the theoretical predictions.” The researcher adds that “there are thousands of millions of brown dwarfs in the Milky Way. The lithium contained in brown dwarfs is the largest known deposit of this valuable element in our cosmic neighborhood.”

Carlos del Burgo Díaz co-author of the article, a researcher at the INAOE, a public research center of the Mexican CONACYT, explains that “although primordial lithium was created 13.800 million years ago, together with hydrogen and helium, as a result of the nuclear reactions in the primordial fireball of the Big Bang, now there is as much as four times more lithium in the Universe.” According to this researcher “although this element can be destroyed, it is also created in explosive events such as novae and supernovae, so that brown dwarfs such as Reid 1B can wrap it up and protect it as if it was a chest of hidden treasure.”

Reference: “New constraints on the minimum mass for thermonuclear lithium burning in brown dwarfs” by E L Martín, N Lodieu and C del Burgo, 23 October 2021, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stab2969

This research has been financed by funding from the Spanish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation (MINECO) and by the European Fund for Regional Developomente (FEDER) via project PID2019-109522GB-C53.

The Gran Telescopio Canarias, and the Observatories of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) are part of the network of Singular Scientific and Technical Infrastructures (ICTS) of Spain.

6 Comments on "Astronomers Discover Ancient “Failed Star” With Lithium Deposits Intact"

  1. Question how are they failed stars they just haven’t been artificially ignited, saying failed is the equivalent of saying earth is becoming a failed “habitable zone” planet. i dont believe there is a such thing as the habitable zone i believe it’s possible for a planet to sustain life without a star i percive a planet could even be capable of surviving inside of a backhole only given your sheer energy output dwarfs the gravity around you. the question is how advanced are you in the field of maintaining your life in a given section? For instance earth is failing the planet is dying. why? well the answer is obvious natural vaporization has stop, for the most part droughts are running rampant, that means we are technically to far from the star for the cycle of life to continue. The problem is that the technology we do have which causes vaporization has stop being used, it was never intended for vaporization of barren areas it’s intent is to commit genocide so the obvious answer is fusion weaponry that is for peace time use. Weaponry that releases no radiation and can be detonated throughout the year over oceans to cause precipitation. Just for factual purposes the US ended nuclear bomb testing on September 30′ 1996 and in 2002 drought was declared in Las Vegas. coincidence? probably not i think theres a connection between the two dates. Nothing is failed in the universe until it disappears from existence even then it’ll just have switched plains of existence, i personally could cause ignition since they are puzzles in the form of spherical locks all you need is the right code to bypass firewalls and spark Fusion. biological hacking is the ultimate way to survival i’d call it the evolution of sequence the rewriting of atoms through the implantation of codes in the form of sound wave encryptions.

    • Jeez… Home schooling in action. Dude, just stringing words together doesn’t mean you make any sense.

    • It’s a schizophrenic word salad. The characteristic jumping from one unfinished thought to the other, the complete lack of logical thinking, and making connections that are simply not there (like the date between end of nuclear testing and drought), all point to schizophrenia.

  2. I’m getting really tired of the sloppy writing in these articles.

    For starters, the following sentence makes no sense “They are more massive than Jupiter but now sufficiently to burn hydrogen, which is the fuel the stars use to shine.”

    Then there is the continuous misuse of commas and decimals in numbers. We have “16.9 light years” which seems obvious. We also have “has an age of 1.100 million years” which I suspect should be 1.1 billion years. Then we have the statement “primordial lithium was created 13.800 million years ago, together with hydrogen and helium, as a result of the nuclear reactions in the primordial fireball of the Big Bang” which is completely inaccurate. The Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago (or 13,800 million years ago).

    The writing in these articles is getting sloppier as time goes by. Some body PLEASE start editing this mess.

    • In Europe, we use the period as a separator and the comma as the decimal indicator (eg. 1.100,00 EUR = 1,100.00 EUR). Either the author is European, or copy/pasting parts of the article from some European material.

  3. In my opinion the writing is sloppy because artificial intelligence or something like it is the thing that is actually typing and churning out these articles

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