Edinburgh University's School of Physics and Astronomy have analysed the atmosphere of Luhman 16B, a brown dwarf 6.5 light years away from Earth.
They found it is surrounded by a searingly hot blanket of patchy clouds made up of droplets of liquid iron and other minerals. As the object rotates, bright and dark clouds move in and out of view and alter its brightness. Using two telescopes in Chile, the researchers mapped a layer of the clouds and reconstructed what happens at different levels of the atmosphere.
Dr Beth Biller said: "We are excited by what we have been able to see in these studies, but this is only the start. With new generations of telescopes, such as the forthcoming European Extremely Large Telescope, astronomers will likely see surface maps of more distant brown dwarfs - and eventually, surface maps for young giant planets."
Two studies of Luhman 16B appear in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and journal Nature.
Methods used by the astronomers could eventually be applied to small, cool planets in other solar systems.