Friday, August 14, 2015 - 10:25am

Looking at younger star systems in the early stages of development is the best way for astronomers to learn how our solar system evolved. In the new issue of Science, a team of astronomers that includes Inseok Song from the department of physics and astronomy has discovered a Jupiter-like planet within a young star system that could serve as a guide for understanding how planets formed around our sun:

The new planet, called 51 Eridani b, is the first exoplanet discovered by the Gemini Planet Imager, a new instrument operated by an international collaboration headed by Bruce Macintosh, a professor of physics in the Kavli Institute at Stanford University. It is the faintest exoplanet on record and also shows the strongest methane signature ever detected on an alien planet, which should yield additional clues as to how the planet formed.

The results were published in the current issue of Science and describe the first major discovery from more than 10 years of collective efforts by more than 50 researchers.

The Gemini Planet Imager was designed specifically for discovering and analyzing faint, young planets orbiting stars. After GPI was installed on the 26-foot Gemini South Telescope in Chile, the team set out to look for planets orbiting young stars. They've looked at almost a hundred stars so far.

The sheer amount of truly inspiring research that we hear about, learn about, and many of us write about leads one to think that, through the combination of technological breakthroughs that leverage the brilliance of our scientists, we might be on the precipice of some new age of discovery. This news only supports such a theory. As we struggle with intractable energy issues and a changing climate, we also see the first images from Pluto and hear reports of an effective Ebola vaccine. The more-promising news can get crowded out by the dramatic and salacious; and it's crucial not become Pollyanna in the face of acute challenges. But this news is also dramatic. Congratulations to this extraordinary group of scientists from around the world. We salute your wonderful results for what they portend for your future work and our understanding of the universe.

Image: Artists conception of 51 Eridani b, showing the hot layers deep in its atmosphere glowing through clouds. Credit: Franck Marchis and Danielle Futselaa