It’s not easy finding small, distant planets. In fact, it took scientists quite a few passes through space before they discovered an alien exoplanet 100 light-years away that looks like a baby Jupiter.
Even more fascinating, the alien world’s neighborhood bears a striking architectural resemblance to our own. If this solar system already has one planet that looks a lot like one of ours, perhaps it could have another.
The alien Jupiter has been called 51 Eridani b and is only about 20 million years old, BBC News reported. That sounds old to human ears, but by astronomical standards, that makes the exoplanet a tot and a very elusive one at that.
This discovery was made by the alien hunters over at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute) using a new telescope called the Gemini Planet Imager. Before Gemini found the Jupiter-like exoplanet orbiting a distant star, it eluded more primitive instruments four times, the Daily Mirror noted.
But planetary bodies far away and too small for other instruments to detect are no match for Gemini, especially if they’re young and burn bright and hot like this alien Jupiter does, study author Rahul I. Patel told the Washington Post.
“Finding these exoplanets is difficult. You’re basically looking for a firefly that’s really close to a flood lamp, standing about a mile away and looking through a glass of water.”
In Patel’s metaphor, the water is the atmosphere, which muddles the host star’s light. As the Smithsonian’s Air and Space division explained, the Gemini can focus the target star and also block its light. Doing that makes it far easier to spot planets in its orbit — like baby Eridani.
There are a couple of reasons the discovery of this alien Jupiter is so important. Firstly, it’s young enough that scientists may be able to figure out how it was created. It may also give us clues as to how our own solar system was formed.
The simple fact that the alien Jupiter’s solar system looks so familiar is stunning in itself “because we see so many which look nothing like our own,” said SETI’s Eric Nielsen. “We could quite easily have a planet with an Earth-like mass which simply cannot be seen using current technology.”
The one thing we share with this distant, alien solar system: two dust belts, a hot and a cold. We have an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter (the warm one) and one in Pluto’s neck of the woods, called the Kuiper belt (the cold one). These are the leftovers from the creation of planets.
The alien Jupiter is sandwiched between two dust belts as well.
So it’s possible that it may be hiding other planets similar to those in our own neighborhood. If it’s already home to a planet that looks similar to Jupiter, it’s possible that it gave birth to a planet that resembles Earth.
“This planet really could have formed the same way Jupiter did — the whole solar system could be a lot like ours,” Patel noted.
[Photo Courtesy NASA/Getty Images]