Webb telescope captures its first direct image of an exoplanet

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Astronomers have captured the first direct image of an exoplanet with the James Webb Space Telescope.

The exoplanet, or planet outside of our solar system, is a gas giant about six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter. The planet, called HIP 65426 b, is about 15 to 20 million years old – just a baby planet when compared to cEarth, which is 4.5 billion years old.

It’s located about 385 light-years away from Earth.

The planet can be seen in four different bands of infrared light as taken by Webb’s different instruments. Webb sees the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye – and makes it the perfect space observatory to reveal details about distant worlds.

“This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, in a statement.

Hinkley led the observations within an international collaboration.

The exoplanet was first discovered in 2017 using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and its SPHERE instrument, located in Chile. The instrument took images of the planet then through short infrared wavelengths, but Webb’s ability to see longer infrared wavelengths can shed light on new details.

Scientists are analyzing Webb’s data of HIP 65426 b and a forthcoming study will be submitted to journals for peer review.

The exoplanet is about 100 times farther from its host star than Earth is from the sun, which allowed Webb and its instruments to separate the planet from its star. Some of Webb’s instruments are armed with coronagraphs, or masks that can block starlight, enabling the telescope to capture direct images of exoplanets.

Stars are much brighter than planets and in this case, HIP 65426 b is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in near-infrared light.

“Obtaining this image felt like digging for space treasure,” said Aarynn Carter, analysis lead for the images and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a statement. “At first all I could see was light from the star, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and uncover the planet.”

While the Hubble Space Telescope was the first to capture direct images of exoplanets, Webb’s infrared exploration of exoplanets is just beginning. The telescope has already shared the first spectrum of an exoplanet by detecting a water signature in its atmosphere and found the first clear evidence of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

And the space observatory only began making scientific observations this summer.

“I think what’s most exciting is that we’ve only just begun,” Carter said. “There are many more images of exoplanets to come that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry, and formation. We may even discover previously unknown planets, too.”