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Brown dwarf's fiery aurora is out of this world...and solar system

Astronomers have spied an aurora beyond our solar system for the first time, lighting up the pole of a failed star that's cool in multiple ways.

Artist's rendering of an aurora over the pole of a brown dwarf. Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan, Caltech.

Auroras aren't just for Alaska and Scandinavia -- in fact, they aren't even exclusive to our solar system, as we've learned now that the magnetic activity best known as the Northern Lights has been spied for the first time on a distant star.

Rather than lighting up from the interaction between the charged particles emanating off a star colliding with a planet's atmosphere (as we've seen on and above Earth, as well as Mars), astronomers observed an aurora creating a halo over a brown dwarf star called LSR J1835+3259.

Brown dwarfs are often referred to as "failed stars" because they're trapped somewhere between being a planet and a full-blown thermonuclear-powered blazing star like our sun.

"All the magnetic activity we see on this object can be explained by powerful auroras," Gregg Hallinan of the California Institute of Technology said in a release. "This indicates that auroral activity replaces solar-like coronal activity on brown dwarfs and smaller objects."

In other words, smaller, cooler stars actually have an atmosphere more like that of a planet that can support auroras rather than the heat-blasting corona we know from our own sun that keeps the grass green.

Astronomers observed LSR J1835+3259, which is 18 light years away, using a combination of radio and optical telescopes, including the 10-meter Keck Telescope on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Their findings will be published in the July 30 issue of the journal Nature.

The process powering the brown dwarf aurora is not well understood and is believed to be similar to the conditions behind a different auroral phenomenon seen on Jupiter, "but thousands of times more powerful," Hallinan said.

It's beginning to look like brown dwarfs might not be such big failures after all. Perhaps they're even worth adding to our bucket list of cosmic destinations for humanity.