Astronomers have used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to get a direct image of a planet outside our solar system for the first time. The exoplanet is a gas giant, which means it lacks a stony surface and could not support life.
The image, which was captured using four distinct light filters, demonstrates how Webb’s strong infrared vision can readily catch worlds outside our solar system, paving the way for future surveys that will disclose more information about exoplanets than ever before.
“This is a watershed event, not only for Webb but for astronomy in general,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who led the observations with wide multinational cooperation. Webb is a multinational mission led by NASA in partnership with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) (Canadian Space Agency).
The exoplanet in Webb’s picture, known as HIP 65426 b, has a mass of six to twelve times that of Jupiter, and new observations may help narrow it down even more. It is a youthful planet, having been for 15 to 20 million years, compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.
The planet was found in 2017 by astronomers using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and photos of it were taken using short infrared wavelengths of light. At longer infrared wavelengths, Webb’s vision shows new features that ground-based telescopes would be unable to detect due to the intrinsic infrared light of Earth’s atmosphere.
Researchers have been studying the data from these observations and are developing a report for peer review in publications. However, Webb’s initial capture of an exoplanet suggests the future potential for investigating faraway worlds. Because HIP 65426 b is nearly 100 times further away from its host star than Earth is from the Sun, Webb can easily discern the planet from the star in the image.
Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) both include coronagraphs, which are little masks that block out starlight, allowing Webb to take direct photographs of exoplanets like this one. NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch later this decade, will have a more sophisticated coronagraph.
“It was extremely remarkable how efficiently the Webb coronagraphs suppressed the host star’s brightness,” Hinkley remarked. Because stars are far brighter than planets, taking direct photographs of exoplanets is difficult. In the near-infrared, the HIP 65426 b planet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star, and just a few thousand times fainter in the mid-infrared.
The planet appears as a slightly different-shaped blob of light in each filter picture. This is due to the specifics of Webb’s optical system and how it converts light via the various optics. “It seemed like we were hunting for space gold,” said Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who conducted the picture analysis. “At first, all I saw was starlight, but with meticulous picture processing, I was able to eliminate that light and reveal the planet.”
While HIP 65426 b is not the first direct image of an exoplanet seen from space – the Hubble Space Telescope has already recorded direct planetary photographs – it does pave the way for Webb’s extraterrestrial investigation.
“I think what’s most thrilling is that we’re just getting started,” Carter remarked. “Many more photos of exoplanets will be released in the future, shaping our total understanding of their physics, chemistry, and origin. We may discover previously unknown planets, too.”
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