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Directly imaging exoplanets provides more than just photographs. The wavelengths of light a planet gives off can reveal a great deal of its secrets, such as its chemical composition. The researchers found that 51 Eri b's atmosphere is dominated by methane, much like Jupiter's.
"In the atmospheres of the cold-giant planets of our solar system, carbon is found as methane, unlike most exoplanets, where carbon has mostly been found in the form of carbon monoxide," study co-author Mark Marley, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, said in a statement. "Since the atmosphere of 51 Eri b is also methane rich, it signifies that this planet is well on its way to becoming a cousin of our own familiar Jupiter."
The researchers suggest that 51 Eri b, as a sort of young Jupiter, might be forming much like giant planets did in the solar system, as opposed to the manner in which researchers suspect radically different worlds such as hot Jupiters formed elsewhere in the universe.