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Published December 20, 2006 | Published
Journal Article Open

A Sensitive Search for Variability in Late L Dwarfs: The Quest for Weather


We have conducted a photometric monitoring program of three field late L brown dwarfs (DENIS-P J0255-4700, 2MASS J0908+5032, and 2MASS J2244+2043) looking for evidence of nonaxisymmetric structure or temporal variability in their photospheres. The observations were performed using Spitzer IRAC 4.5 and 8 μm bandpasses and were designed to cover at least one rotational period of each object; 1 σ rms uncertainties of less than 3 mmag at 4.5 μm and around 9 mmag at 8 μm were achieved. Two out of the three objects studied exhibit some modulation in their light curves at 4.5 μm—but not 8 μm—with periods of 7.4 hr (DENIS 0255) and 4.6 hr (2MA 2244) and peak-to-peak amplitudes of 10 and 8 mmag. Although the lack of detectable 8 μm variation suggests an instrumental origin for the detected variations, the data may nevertheless still be consistent with intrinsic variability, since the shorter wavelength IRAC bandpasses probe more deeply into late L dwarf atmospheres than the longer wavelengths. A cloud feature occupying a small percentage (1%-2%) of the visible hemisphere could account for the observed amplitude of variation. If, instead, the variability is indeed instrumental in origin, then our nonvariable L dwarfs could be either completely covered with clouds or objects whose clouds are smaller and uniformly distributed. Such scenarios would lead to very small photometric variations. Follow-up IRAC photometry at 3.6 and 5.8 μm bandpasses should distinguish between the two cases. In any event, the present observations provide the most sensitive search to date for structure in the photospheres of late L dwarfs at mid-IR wavelengths, and our photometry provides stringent upper limits to the extent to which the photospheres of these transition L dwarfs are structured.

Additional Information

Copyright is not claimed for this article. Received 2006 June 2; accepted 2006 July 21. We acknowledge use of the L and T dwarf archives at http://dwarfarchives.org, maintained by two of us (J. D. K. and C.R.G.) and Adam Burgasser. This work is based on observations made with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. Support for this work was provided by NASA through an award issued by JPL/Caltech. M. M.-C. also acknowledges the funding provided by the Spitzer Visiting Graduate Students Fellowship Program. Facilities: Spitzer ( IRAC)

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