4.1 The dynamo at very low masses

Stars of spectral type G – K are considered sun-like stars, their interior structure with an outer convective envelope and an inner radiative core, and the general observational evidence for similar evolutionary paths lead to the conclusion that this group of stars follows physical principles that are very much alike. Early-M type stars can be sorted into the same category. However, at mid- and late-M spectral types, serious changes occur to stellar structure that are predicted from theory and observed in different aspects of stellar evolution. The first important change in stellar structure occurs at spectral types M3/M4 (in field dwarfs). Stars hotter than M3 have a radiative core like the Sun, and cooler sun-like stars have convective envelopes that extend deeper into the interior of the star. On the other hand, stars cooler than M4 are believed to be fully convective without a radiative core, and without a transition region between the outer convective envelope and the inner radiative core. Because in solar dynamo models this transition region, the tachocline, is believed to be the locus where (at least the cyclic part of) the stellar dynamo is most efficient, a change in dynamo efficiency has been expected at spectral type M3/M4. So far, measurements of average field strengths show no evidence for such a break in dynamo behavior (but see Section 6); rapidly rotating stars on both sides of the convective boundary can produce magnetic fields of kG-strength.

Following stellar evolution to even lower temperatures and later spectral types leads into the regime of very-low-mass objects. At spectral type ∼ M6 and later, there is no longer a unique relation between effective temperature and the mass of an object, because this is the regime where field stars and young brown dwarfs co-exist. Brown dwarfs are objects with mass lower than ≈ 0.08M ⊙ that cannot burn hydrogen into helium for significant fractions of their lifetime. The difference from stars to brown dwarfs is dramatic if long-term evolution is concerned. For a potential dynamo operating in objects at the cool end of the main-sequence, however, the source of energy is not necessarily expected to make any difference. Therefore, no fundamental difference should exist between magnetic fields on very-low mass stars and massive brown dwarfs. However, we have seen in Section 3.1.3 that so far no field could be detected in a brown dwarf.

Another effect that probably bears some importance for magnetic field generation in very-low mass stars is growing atmospheric neutrality (Meyer and Meyer-Hofmeister, 1999; Mohanty et al., 2002). Since magnetic fields can only couple to ions and electrons, the lack of ionization in atmospheres below a few thousand K should play a role in the generation of magnetic fields. The growth of ionisation fraction with depth may still allow field coupling sufficiently deep within the stellar interior and atmospheric ionisation may be provided by dust ionisation (see Helling et al., 2011). Growing atmospheric neutrality certainly is important for the coupling between magnetic fields and the stellar wind. Evidence for the latter is found in observations of high rotation velocities interpreted as very weak angular momentum loss in very-low mass stars and brown dwarfs (Reiners and Basri, 2008Jump To The Next Citation Point; Blake et al., 2010).

Recently, magnetic fields measurements in a sample of very-low mass stars of spectral types M7 – M9 were reported in Reiners and Basri (2010Jump To The Next Citation Point). Stars in this regime are probably all fully convective and their atmospheres are significantly cooler than atmospheres in sun-like stars. The overall distribution of field strengths in very-low-mass stars does not seem to differ from higher-mass, earlier M dwarfs; average fields of up to ∼ 4 kG are detected. However, there is evidence for a change in the relation between rotation and magnetic field strength. Reiners and Basri (2010Jump To The Next Citation Point) show that the correlation between projected surface velocity v sin i gradually weakens from spectral type M7 to M9 showing virtually no relation at lowest temperatures. We can estimate the Rossby number of the M7 – M9 stars and plot the average magnetic fields of the M7 – M9 stars as a function of Rossby number (red squares in Figure 19View Image). This plot shows that the Rossby numbers for the sample stars are much lower than those for earlier stars. For given Rossby number, the distribution of average field strength Bf extends to lower values than seen in hotter stars. This also may be interpreted as evidence for the breakdown of the rotation-magnetic field relation in very-low mass stars.

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