Young, Alien 'Jupiter' Exoplanet Discovered with Gemini Planet Imager

First Posted: Aug 14, 2015 07:21 AM EDT

Scientists have discovered a Jupiter-like planet within a young solar system that may actually tell researchers a bit more about how planets formed around our own sun. The newly discovered planet shows how younger star systems develop in their early stages.

The new planet is called 51 Eridani b, and is the first exoplanet discovered by the Gemini Planet Imager, which is a new instrument. The planet is about a million times fainter than its parent star and shows the strongest methane signature ever detected on an alien planet.

"To detect planets, Kepler sees their shadow," said Bruce Macintosh, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The Gemini Imager instead sees their glow, which we refer to as direct imaging."

The researchers used adaptive optics to sharpen the image of a star, and then block out the starlight. Any remaining incoming light was then analyzed with the brightest spots indicating a possible planet.

The latest discover is one of the youngest stars this close to our sun. It was only born about 20 million years ago. This means that the planet orbiting it is also young and may tell researchers a bit more about planet evolution.

"Many of the exoplanets astronomers have imaged before have atmospheres that look like very cool stars," said Macintosh. "This one looks like a planet."

The planet is the lowest-mass planet ever imaged, and is also one of the coldest at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Previous Jupiter-like exoplanets have shown traces of methane, which is different from the heavy methane atmosphere found in this case.

"51 Eri b is the first one that's cold enough and close enough to the star that it could have been formed right where it is in the 'old-fashioned way,'" said Macintosh. "This planet really could have formed the same way Jupiter did-the whole solar system could be a lot like ours."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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