For the first time, astronomers have used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space telescope, to take a direct image of a planet outside our solar system. The exoplanet is a gas giant, which means that it has no surface and is likely to be inhabitable. “This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy, who led these observations with a large international collaboration.
Called HIP 65426 b, the exoplanet is about six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter, and according to NASA “these observations could help narrow that down even further”. “It is young as planets go — about 15 to 20 million years old, compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth,” the space agency said.
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It was discovered by astronomers in 2017 using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope in Chile which took images using the short infrared wavelength of light. On the other hand, James Webb’s telescope used longer wavelengths which helps in revealing ground-based details, which ground-based telescopes cannot.
The picture of the exoplanet, as viewed via four distinct filters, demonstrates how Webb can easily capture extrasolar worlds, making way for future observations that will reveal unprecedented details about exoplanets.
“It was really impressive how well the Webb coronagraphs worked to suppress the light of the host star,” Hinkley said. According to NASA, taking direct images of exoplanets is challenging because stars are much brighter than planets. “The HIP 65426 b planet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in the near-infrared, and a few thousand times fainter in the mid-infrared,” it explains.
“Obtaining this image felt like digging for space treasure,” said Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher, who led the analysis of the images. “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,” Carter added.