Thursday, August 13, 2015

51 Eridani b

In what has to be the biggest news story today (sorry, Canada Post), a new planet has been discovered, and it looks an awful lot like how a young Jupiter presumably looked. The planet, named 51 Eridani b, is only about 20 million years old, making it a "baby" by planetary standards. Its methane-rich atmosphere, which resembles our solar system's gas giants far more than most other planets, makes it instructive for learning how planets closer to us once looked.

51 Eridani b is not named for any Roman deity like many of the planets in our solar system, although a deity named Eridani sounds interesting. Rather, it is named for the Eridanus constellation visible from much of the Southern Hemisphere, which is in turn a Latin name for the Po River. One of its stars is called Eridani; 51 Eridani b orbits this star.

A team led by Stanford University astrophysicist Bruce Macintosh discovered the planet using the Gemini Planet Imager, a recently developed device that measures planets according to their glows. Measurements it takes include temperature and mass - in 51 Eridani b's case, twice the mass of Jupiter and a scorching 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Oddly, it is the lowest-mass planet discovered using this method, and one of the coldest.

Here's an artist's rendition of 51 Eridani b that's been floating around the internet for the past few hours courtesy of the Stanford website:

Isn't it... cute?

NOTE: Irrelevant to this story, but certainly relevant to a book blog, is that I read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything last month. Despite its title, the book is a few hundred pages summarizing a significant part of the history of science, including dozens of entertaining stories about scientists. (I especially recommend the stories about Jack Haldane's decompression chamber experiments, which have to be read in as much possible detail in order to be believed.) Amazingly, in light of Bryson's lack of any doctoral education, the book succeeded in its mission of popularizing science for me, considering I read far more news stories on 51 Eridani b than I would have otherwise. This was in large part due to the book's extensive astronomy section. I assure you, it would have made for a fine entry on here if I had not suddenly been given The Sound and the Fury as a birthday present.

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