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

Joanna Jaguar

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."

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."

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."

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

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