Every few weeks, Brianna O’Neill, a graduate student studying chemistry, will take a look at Stony Brook-related science and research news.
One hundred light-years away, right within our own galactic neighborhood, is a young planet named 51 Eridani b.
This exoplanet, or planet not of our solar system, was discovered using the Gemini Planet Imager by an international team of scientists, two of which work at Stony Brook in the Department of Physics and Astronomy: Stanimir Metchev and Rahul I. Patel.
The Gemini Planet Imager works like a camera — it measures the light coming from the planet and essentially takes a picture. Instead of capturing visible light that we can see with our eyes, these pictures capture light in the infrared spectrum. An example of infrared light is thermal energy; some cameras capture heat signatures instead of images. Other ways to discover planets actually look at the absence of light to indicate whether a planet is present.
There are other planets that have been identified with the GPI. What makes 51 Eridani b so interesting, besides being the faintest and youngest planet, is that it has an atmosphere with a chemical spectrum or fingerprint that shows a strong resemblance to that of Jupiter. Methane, a carbon-based gas, has a very strong signal on this planet, much like that of Jupiter.
“And so, there’s an additional similarity between this planet that we’ve imaged, and Jupiter that implies that their formation mechanisms may be similar as well,” Patel said. “Between the brightness of the star at this age and the chemistry of the atmosphere, implies a different formation mechanism than what we see from the other directly imaged planets we’ve seen.”
Patel’s contribution to the project was the discovery of a dust disc surrounding the 51 Eridani star, similar to the asteroid belt that surrounds our sun. These dust discs are formed by asteroid collisions and are evidence of the presence of a planet. For the asteroids to collide, there would have be the gravitational pull of the planet pushing them around.
While there are other planets being found, this one can be monitored, and researchers can learn about the development of our own solar system. The significance of this planet ties into what Patel loves about his research: problem solving.
“Solving a problem, solving any problem everyday is exciting to me, whether it’s figuring out some calculation or you know identifying a planet, small to large problems that you solve can also be additional questions that come along with it are really exciting, because you’re at the forefront of you know human understanding,” Patel said. “And so any sort of push beyond that, even if it’s incremental, it’s outstanding because we are learning more every day.”
While some researchers are peering through a microscope, others look to the stars to understand more about our galaxy.
Correction: Sept. 5, 2015
A previous version of this story erroneously reported that a dust disc surrounding the exoplanet 51 Eridani b was similar to discs surrounding Jupiter. The story should have compared the dust disc surrounding the 51 Eridani star to the asteroid belt that surrounds the sun.