Brown Dwarfs--Faint at Heart, Rich in Chemistry

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Science  16 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5656, pp. 323-324
DOI: 10.1126/science.1092865

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Brown dwarfs are not massive enough to power a stellar nuclear engine, so they are cool and dim when compared to stars, but have a comparatively rich molecular chemistry. In her Perspective, Lodders explains how the chemical signatures of brown dwarfs are being used to classify them. Brown dwarf atmospheres contain clouds, which form in a similar way to those in the atmospheres of giant planets such as Jupiter. However, whereas Jupiter's cloud layers range from icy clouds at the top to refractory ceramics deep inside, the hottest brown dwarfs may only have the most refractory clouds. This rich chemistry is recorded in the spectra of brown dwarfs and can be used as a "thermometer" to categorize them.