The James Webb Space Telescope has its first direct image of a distant exoplanet, an alien world beyond our solar system.
Using a variety of instruments, Webb captured multiple images of the exoplanet HIP 65426 b, a gas giant six to 12 times more massive than Jupiter and located about 385 light-years from Earth.
The results are part of an ongoing study and have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a science journal, but NASA shared the preliminary results in a blog post Thursday morning.
“This is a transformative moment not just for Webb, but for astronomy in general,” said Sasha Hinkley, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter. She is the lead scientists in an international collaboration conducting the study of the exoplanet.
HIP 65426 b was first discovered in 2017 by the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, which viewed the exoplanet in short wavelengths of infrared light; longer wavelengths of infrared light are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere for ground-based telescopes. Because Webb is based on space, he can access more of the infrared spectrum and see more detail in distant planets.
Webb’s images aren’t the first direct images of exoplanets, as the Hubble Space Telescope has managed to capture images of other alien worlds, but it’s not easy — the intense brightness of a planet’s nearby star can block the light coming from that exoplanet comes, hide. For example, HIP 65426 b is 10,000 times less bright than its star.
But HIP 65426 b orbits its star at a distance 100 times greater than Earth and the Sun, helping scientists pick out the planet in Webb’s images. Webb’s instruments are also equipped with coronagraphs, devices that blacken the distant star’s disk to reduce glare and make finding and focusing on an exoplanet a little easier.
“It was really impressive how well the Webb coronagraphs worked to suppress the host star’s light,” said Dr. Hinkley.
The images, taken with multiple filters and Webb’s Near-infrared camera (Nircam) and Mid-infrared instrument (Miri), are just the first of what scientists hope will be a long line of exoplanet images and discoveries made possible by the new space telescope . The images follow a new analysis of one of Webb’s first observations, a light spectrum from the exoplanet Wasp 39b, which first revealed the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an alien world.
“I think the most exciting thing is that we’re just getting started,” postdoctoral researcher Aarynn Carter of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who analyzed the new Webb images of HIP 65426 b, said in a statement. “Many more images of exoplanets are coming that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry and formation. We may even discover previously unknown planets.”