‘Young Jupiter’ Found: New Jupiter-Like Exoplanet, 51 Eridani B, Could Hold Key To Unlocking Mysteries Of Our Solar System

Scientists and astronomers at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) institute have discovered a new exoplanet a mere 96 light years from Earth. The planet, nicknamed “Young Jupiter,” was found using a new instrument called a Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), an elaborate tool about the size of a small car that attaches to one of the world’s largest telescopes. One of the many things that makes Young Jupiter so special, says Franck Marchis, Senior Planetary Astronomer at the SETI Institute and member of the team that built the GPI, is that it is the very first exoplanet to be found with the complex instrument.

“This is the first exoplanet discovered with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), one of the new generation instruments designed specifically for discovering and analyzing faint, young planets orbiting bright stars. GPI is far more sensitive than its predecessors. In fact, the 51 Eri system had been observed by four previous-generation instruments that all missed the planet completely.”

The Jupiter-like planet was found in the Eridanus constellation, and has been officially named 51 Eridani b.

'Young Jupiter' Found: New Jupiter-Like Exoplanet, 51 Eridani B, Could Hold Key To Unlocking Mysteries Of Our Solar System
Location of 51 Eri in the constellation of Eridanus (The River). Credit: Astrostudio.com & Sarah Blunt, SETI Institute

51 Eridani b is being called a baby planet, as it is still very young and in the early stages of its development — at least as far as planets go. Though this young Jupiter is roughly twice the size of our Jupiter, it is much — as in billions of years — younger than ours. In fact, according to Eric Nielsen, a postdoctoral researcher at the SETI Institute, 51 Eridani b is only about 20 million years old.

“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. 51 Eri was born 20 million years ago, 40 million years after the dinosaurs died out.”

Jupiter, on the other hand, was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

'Young Jupiter' Found: New Jupiter-Like Exoplanet, 51 Eridani B, Could Hold Key To Unlocking Mysteries Of Our Solar System
Discovery image of the planet 51 Eridani b with the Gemini Planet Imager taken in the near-infrared light on December 18 2014. Credit: Julien Rameau & Christian Marois

Like our Jupiter, young Eridani’s atmosphere is made up of mostly methane gas, and this fact has researchers extremely excited, because it is the first time large amounts of the gas have been found in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, says Julien Rameau, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal. It also gives scientists a potential glimpse at what Jupiter looked like in the early years of its formation.

“In Jupiter, we know that there is huge content of methane so it makes 51 Eridani b very similar to what Jupiter was when the solar system was young. I was like ‘This is awesome, this is amazing.”

Bruce MacIntosh, who headed up the construction of the GPI, explained that the entire planetary system in which Young Jupiter is a part, could look a lot like our own system, and so it is of great import that they begin studying the infant exoplanet again — which will happen sometime in September. “This planet really could have formed the same way Jupiter did — this whole planetary system could be a lot like ours,” he said. “How all the weird systems we see and Kepler sees got to be there is the biggest exoplanet question right now, and everything we can do to understand it is critical.” Who knows, maybe hiding behind Young Jupiter is a Young Earth just waiting to be found.

[Image Credits: Header — Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis/SETI Institute]

[Body — Astrostudio.com & Sarah Blunt/SETI Institute, Julien Rameau & Christian Marois]