A University of Toledo researcher is among a group of astronomers to discover a young Jupiter-like planet that could help further our understanding about how planets formed around the sun.
The research results are published in the current issue of the journal Science, which is the world’s leading outlet for science news published by the American Association of the Advancement of Science.Dr. Adam Schneider, a UT astronomy postdoctoral research associate, and the research team led by Dr. Bruce Macintosh, a professor of physics at Stanford University, identified the planet, called 51 Eridani b, about 90 light years away from Earth using the new Gemini Planet Imager on the Gemini South telescope in Chile.
The Gemini Planet Imager was designed to discover and analyze faint, young planets orbiting bright stars.
“Looking for a planet near a star is a little bit like looking for a firefly next to a lighthouse,” Schneider said. “It is hard to see the planet because of all the light coming from the star.”
While thousands of planets have been discovered, it has previously been done indirectly by detecting a loss of starlight as a planet passes in front of its star or by the gravitational wobble of the star induced by the planet. This new technology searches for light from the planet itself, which astronomers refer to as direct imaging, and 51 Eridani b is the first planet discovered with the Gemini Planet Imager.The planet is a million times fainter than its parent star, 51 Eridani, and is orbiting a littler father away from its star than Saturn does from the sun. Observations reveal it is about twice the mass of Jupiter, making it the lowest-mass planet ever imaged, and it also is one of the coldest at 800 degrees Farenheit.
Schneider’s role was target identification for the research team to identify the 600 celestial objects for the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey that will continue during the next several years. 51 Eridani b is the 44th target of the 600 in the survey and was first observed in December.
“As you would imagine, we don’t pick random stars to study,” Schneider said. “One of the main factors we use to determine what gets further study is to look at the nearest and youngest stars that would have young planets that still emit some of their own light, rather than light only being reflected from the star.”
To put that in perspective, our sun is 4.5 billion years old. A young star, by comparison, would be less than 100 million years old. This object is about 20 million years old, Schneider explained.
In addition to expanding the number of known planets, the goal of the exoplanet survey is to provide clues as to how solar systems form through the study of these young planets. The characteristics of 51 Eridani b are similar to what research models suggest Jupiter was like in its infancy.
“This is the cutting-edge of planet detection and it is a great opportunity for The University of Toledo to be involved in this research,” said Dr. Mike Cushing, UT associate professor of astronomy and director of the Ritter Planetarium. “It is all a question of origins. Where did we come from? We know our solar system very well, but this research will help us learn if the architecture of our solar system is common or rare.”