New Exoplanet Could Help Unlock Jupiter’s Past

Written by on August 16, 2015 in Earth & Space, Sci-Tech with 0 Comments

Caroline Reid | IFL Science

photo credit: Artist's impression of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eridani b. Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis/SETI Institute.

photo credit: Artist’s impression of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eridani b. Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis/SETI Institute.

“That looks interesting!” exclaimed a researcher, looking through data from a telescope. He had spotted something in a star system that many other telescopes had looked at before and missed. The statement marked the discovery of a new exoplanet in a young star system, only 100 light-years away. The exoplanet has a strong abundance of methane gas and other characteristics that are surprisingly similar to the biggest gas giant in our own Solar System, Jupiter. Scientists are hopeful that this exoplanet might give us additional clues about how our own dominant gas giant, and others, are formed.

The data came from the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), a newly installed instrument on the Gemini South observatory in Chile, which was designed specifically to seach for planets. It blocks out the light of a star to see the image of any planets that might be rolling around it.  You can see the results from this study in Science.

This is the first discovery by this new instrument, and it showcases its superior planet-spotting ability; four other observatories looked at the star, 51 Eridani, before the GPI, and none of them saw this planet, dubbed 51 Eridani b. But its discovery was difficult even for the GPI, and only some key features of the exoplanet allowed it to be found.

“For [the GPI] to work, the planet has to be young right now; we can’t see an old planet like Jupiter that’s just reflecting starlight – we can only see the infrared emission that a young planet has,” Bruce Macintosh from Stanford University, who led the research, told IFLScience.

The newly discovered planet itself is a youngster at a mere 20 million years old. The scientists deduced, based on the brightness of the planet, that its mass is about twice that of Jupiter: the most massive planet in our Solar System at 317 times the mass of Earth. However, Macintosh said that this value is “very uncertain since it’s based on theoretical models. We don’t get to measure the mass directly.” There is still uncertainty in the calculation since the planet is much younger than Jupiter, so there are more than four billion years of changes between them.

Regarding the birth of this planet, which could have implications for the birth of other gas giants, there are two main competing theories.

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