NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured its first direct images of a planet outside our solar system.
The planet, called HIP 65426 b, is a gas giant with no rocky surface, meaning it probably can’t support extraterrestrial life, according to astronomers who described the images in a NASA blog post published Thursday. The scientists are preparing a paper on the observations, but the findings have yet to be peer reviewed.
However, the observations are notable for hinting at how the Webb telescope could be used to search for potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe.
“This is a transformative moment not only for Webb but also for astronomy in general,” Sasha Hinkley, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. Hinkley led the observations of HIP 65426 b with an international team.
The exoplanet is located about 355 light-years away from Earth and was first discovered in 2017, according to NASA. The gas giant is up to 12 times the mass of Jupiter and its orbit is about 100 times farther from its parent star than Earth is from the sun.
NASA said the Webb telescope can collect new details about HIP 65426 b, including a more accurate measurement of its mass and age. Astronomers estimate that the exoplanet is about 15 million to 20 million years old, meaning it is a relatively young world compared to Earth, which is 4.5 billion years old.
The Hubble Space Telescope has previously captured direct images of exoplanets, but it remains difficult to achieve this from space because stars typically outnumber the planets. In the case of HIP 65426 b, the exoplanet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its parent star in near-infrared light, the astronomers said.
“Getting this image felt like digging for space treasures,” Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who led the analysis of the images, said in a statement. “At first I could only see the light from the star, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and expose the planet.”
The resulting image shows HIP 65426 b through four different light filters captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument.
The telescope’s infrared “eyes” can see through dust and gas, allowing them to pick up objects and features beyond the reach of human vision. Both the Near-Infrared Camera and the Mid-Infrared Instrument are also equipped with coronagraphs that help block the light from the stars.
The $10 billion Webb telescope was launched into space on December 25, 2021. The first batch of images from the observatory was released in July, and early scientific operations have already yielded tantalizing discoveries.
“I think the most exciting thing is that we’re just getting started,” Carter said in the 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.”