Scientists searching for planets that circle stars other than our Sun, or exoplanets, discovered an object that looks like a baby Jupiter. The planet, 51 Eridani b, could help us learn more about how our own solar system was formed.
The discovery, discussed in an article published in Science, marks a success for the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), a powerful instrument designed to image and analyze exoplanets. According to a statement, 51 Eridani b is the first exoplanet found by GPI, which opened in 2014. Study co-author Eric Nielsen said that the planet is a pretty good first find: "51 Eri is one of the best stars for imaging young planets…It's one of the very youngest stars this close to the Sun."
Youngest, at 20 million years old.
The new exoplanet is, according to the release, the "lowest-mass planet ever imaged." It's also, at 800 degrees, one of the coldest, and rich in methane. All of these factors make 51 Eridani b resemble a young Jupiter, according to scientific modeling.
What's exciting about this discovery is that it means 51 Eridani b could exist in a solar system comparable to our own— and the Jupiter-like planet's young age can help us understand Jupiter's origin. Lead investigator Bruce Macintosh explained, "51 Eri b is…cold enough and close enough to the star that it could have indeed formed right where it is the 'old-fashioned way…This planet really could have formed the same way Jupiter did—the whole solar system could be a lot like ours."
The discovery comes soon after NASA discovered an Earth-like planet, called Kepler 452b. Both Kepler 452b and 51 Eridani b are too far away for us to ever hope to make physical contact.
Still, there could be other ways to try to make contact. The truth is out there.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.