Methane, water enshroud nearby Jupiter-like exoplanet

August 13, 2015
Artistic conception of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eri b, seen in the near-infrared light that shows the hot layers deep in its atmosphere glowing through clouds. Because of its young age, this cousin of our own Jupiter is still hot and carries information on the way it was formed 20 million years ago. Credit: Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis, SETI Institute.

The Gemini Planet Imager has discovered and photographed its first planet, a methane-enshrouded gas giant much like Jupiter that may hold the key to understanding how large planets form in the swirling accretion disks around stars.

The GPI instrument, which is mounted on the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile, is the size of a small car and was designed, built and optimized for imaging and analyzing the atmospheres of faint Jupiter-like planets next to bright stars, thanks to a device that masks the star's glare.

In December 2104, GPI began searching hundreds of nearby young stars, and after a mere month, University of California, Berkeley, postdoctoral fellow Robert De Rosa began looking at the initial data. He soon noticed something large orbiting a young star in a triple-star system only 100 light years from Earth. He and graduate student Jason Wang summoned the GPI team, which confirmed the planet.

The planet, dubbed 51 Eridani b, is a million times fainter than its star, 51 Eridani, and shows the strongest methane signature ever detected on an alien planet, which should yield clues as to how the planet formed. The planetary system is very young - around 20 million years old, compared to our own 4.5 billion-year-old solar system - and provides a view of what Jupiter might have looked like in its infancy.

"This is exactly the kind of planet we envisioned discovering when we designed GPI," said James Graham, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy and the GPI project scientist. "We wanted to find planets when they're young so we can figure out the formation process."

The planet is estimated to be about twice the mass of Jupiter, and orbits at a distance of 13 AU, or slightly farther from its star than Saturn is from the sun. An AU is equal to the Earth-sun distance, or 150 million kilometers (93 million miles). Two of the stars in the system form a close pair far from the planet's host star, and apparently do not affect the planet's orbit.

Spectra of the planet reveal methane gas as well as water similar to the conditions thought to occur deep in Jupiter's ..

"Judging by its low luminosity, low temperature and strong methane signature, this is the most Jupiter-like exoplanet ever directly imaged," said Graham,

Image of the exoplanet 51 Eridani b was taken by the Gemini Planet Imager in the near-infrared on Dec. 18 2014. The light from the central star has been mostly removed to enable the detection of the exoplanet one million times fainter. Credit: J. Rameau (UdeM) and C. Marois (NRC Herzberg).

"Many of the exoplanets astronomers have studied before have atmospheres that look like very cool stars," said Bruce Macintosh, a professor of physics in the Kavli Institute at Stanford University who led the construction of GPI and now leads the survey. "This one looks like a planet."

Graham, Macintosh, De Rosa, Wang and their team members will publish their results online Aug. 13 in Science Express.

Hot start vs cold start

Astronomers believe that the gas giants in our formed by building up a large rocky core over a few million years and then pulling in a huge amount of hydrogen and other gasses to form an atmosphere. But the gas-giants exoplanets discovered by direct imaging that have so far been discovered are hot, hinting that they formed much faster as material collapsed rapidly to make a very hot planet, so called "hot-start" scenario. The cold-start scenario, called core accretion, can also form rocky planets like Earth and Mars, but the hot-start model of gravitational collapse might only make .

The video will load shortly
The Gemini Planet Imager utilizes an integral field spectrograph, an instrument capable of taking images at multiple wavelengths of light simultaneously, in order to search for young self-luminous planets around nearby stars. The left side of the animation shows the GPI images of the nearby star 51 Eridani in order of increasing wavelength from 1.5 to 1.8 microns. The images have been processed to suppress the light from 51 Eridani, revealing the exoplanet 51 Eridani b (indicated) which is approximately a million times fainter than the parent star. The bright regions to the left and right of the masked star are artifacts from the image processing algorithm, and can be distinguished from real astrophysical signals based on their brightness and position as a function of wavelength. The spectrum of 51 Eridani b, on the right side of the animation, shows how the brightness of the planet varies as a function of wavelength. If the atmosphere was entirely transmissive, the brightness would be approximately constant as a function of wavelength. This is not the case for 51 Eridani b, the atmosphere of which contains both water (H20) and methane (CH4). Over the spectral range of this GPI dataset, water absorbs photons between 1.5 and 1.6 microns, and methane absorbs between 1.6 and 1.8 microns. This leads to a strong peak in the brightness of the exoplanet at 1.6 microns, the wavelength at which absorption by both water and methane is weakest. Credit: Robert De Rosa (UC Berkeley), Christian Marois (NRC Herzberg, University of Victoria).

The low temperature of 51 Eridani b, estimated to be about 430 Celsius (800 Fahrenheit), may mean that this is the first example of a directly imaged planet that is consistent with a cold-start formation mechanism, the team concluded.

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

There are hundreds of planets a little bigger than Earth out there, Macintosh said, but there is so far no way to know if they are really "super-Earths" or just micro-sized gas and ice planets like Neptune or something different all together. Using GPI to study more young solar systems such as 51 Eridani, he said, will help astronomers understand the formation of our neighbor planets, and how common that planet-forming mechanism is throughout the universe.

"Our knowledge today of how planets form reminds me of our knowledge 50-60 years ago of how stars form," Graham said.

Direct imaging

Fewer than a handful of exoplanets have been imaged, but even without an image, astronomers have found ways to study their atmospheres. When a planet passes in front of its star - a so-called transit - some of the star's light is blocked or absorbed, yielding a spectral signature of the chemicals in the atmosphere. The frequencies (wavelengths or colors) of light reflected by a planet can provide similar information.

But those techniques sample only a thin layer of material at the very top of the atmosphere, Graham said. GPI detects light emitted directly by , rather than light reflected or transmitted through the atmosphere. This light is from the heat remaining after gravitational collapse of gas and dust that formed the planet. When we look at Jupiter, half the light we see, primarily in the infrared, comes from internal heat remaining after its collapse into a planet 4.5 billion years ago.

The new planet is so young that nearly all the observed light comes from inside, allowing astronomers to sample the chemical structure in different atmospheric layers.

The team plans to begin observing the planet again in late September, when it emerges from behind the sun, and hope to find that the planet has moved along its orbit: confirmation that it is, in fact, a planet.

Explore further: Astronomers join forces to speed discovery of habitable worlds

More information: Discovery and spectroscopy of the young Jovian planet 51 Eri b with the Gemini Planet Imager, by B. Macintosh et al.

Related Stories

Jupiter twin discovered around solar twin

July 15, 2015

Astronomers have used the ESO 3.6-metre telescope to identify a planet just like Jupiter orbiting at the same distance from a Sun-like star, HIP 11915. According to current theories, the formation of Jupiter-mass planets ...

New exoplanet too big for its stars

May 1, 2015

The Australian discovery of a strange exoplanet orbiting a small cool star 500 light years away is challenging ideas about how planets form.

Jupiter's movements made way for Earth

June 23, 2015

There's something about our solar system that appears to be unusual. For some reason, most of our bigger planets are far away from our host star, while closer in are smaller, rocky worlds, including Earth itself.

Recommended for you

Speeding star gives new clues to breakup of multi-star system

March 30, 2017

A remarkable new discovery using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveals three stars that now hold the record as the youngest-known examples of a super-fast-flying breed. "Until these observations, only a few—but older—examples ...

Search for stellar survivor of a supernova explosion

March 30, 2017

Astronomers have used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to observe the remnant of a supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Beyond just delivering a beautiful image, Hubble may well have traced the surviving ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (2) Aug 14, 2015
430 ° C of the planet 51 Eridani B is near the average temperature of Venus (462 ° C), and the orbit is, further from Saturn. The average temperature of Jupiter is -121 ° C, Saturn -139 ° C .
It is obvious that this is a hot Jupiter with molten parts of the crust of the planet.
Increase in weight (due to the increase in compressive forces within of the planet) body was heated. I do not know where they found the similarity with Jupiter.
Enthusiastic Fool
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2015
hot Jupiter


Choose one.
1 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2015
hot Jupiter


Choose one.

Temperature 430 ° C means that there is crust. Hot Jupiter is due to differences the temperature of 560 ° C (though there is hot).
Enthusiastic Fool
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2015
Hot Jupiter means it's a gas giant like Jupiter or Neptune or Uranus without a crust. There'd be a solid core and then gas all the way up. They'd call it a Super Earth if it was a rocky body with a crust. The similarity with Jupiter is that this system is really young and they expect Jupiter was similar at a younger age before it cooled to its current temps. How do you come to the conclusion that 430 C means a crust?

See also:
5 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2015
@Enthusiastic Fool
Since you referred to I had to revise the comment I wrote there on August 2nd.
Enthusiastic Fool
5 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2015
Thanks for the follow up TC.
not rated yet Aug 16, 2015
"... December 2104, GPI ..."
Otherwise, very well done !!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.