Brown dwarfs are notoriously hard to find. It’s not so bad when they are first born: They come into the Universe with a blast, shedding light and heat in an infantile display of vigour. But within just a few million years, they have burned their available nuclear fuels, and settle down to consume their leaner elemental pickings. Their visible light dims considerably with time to perhaps just a magenta shimmer. But they still produce heat, and the older they get, the more likely that a direct detection of a brown dwarf will have to be in the infra-red spectrum.
This doesn’t make them much easier to detect, though, because to catch these faint heat signatures in the night sky, you first need to have a cold night sky. A very cold night sky. Worse, water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs infra-red light along multiple stretches of the spectrum. The warmth and humidity of the Earth’s atmosphere heavily obscures infra-red searches, even in frigid climates, and so astronomers wishing to search in the infra-red either have to build IR telescopes atop desert mountains (like in Chile’s Atacama desert), or else resort to the use of space-based platforms. The downside of the latter is that the telescopes tend to lose liquid helium supplies rather quickly, shortening their lifespan considerably compared to space-based optical telescopes.
The first major sky search using a space telescope was IRAS, back in the 1980s. Then came Spitzer at the turn of the century, followed by Herschel, and then WISE about five years ago. Some infra-red telescopes conduct broad searches across the sky for heat traces, others zoom in on candidate objects for closer inspection. Each telescope exceeds the last in performance, sometimes by orders of magnitude, which means that faint objects that might have been missed by early searches stand more of a chance of being picked up in the newer searches.
The next big thing in infra-red astronomy is the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT), due for launch in Spring 2019. The JSWT should provide the kind of observational power provided by the Hubble Space telescope – but this time in infra-red. The reason why astronomers want to view the universe in detail using infra-red wavelengths is that very distant objects are red-shifted to such a degree that their light tends to be found in the infra-red spectrum, generally outside Hubble’s operational parameters (1). Essentially, the JWST will be able to see deeper into space (and, therefore, look for objects sending their light to us from further back in time when the first stars and galaxies emerged). Read More…