The James Webb Space Telescope has the first direct image of a distant exoplanet, an alien world outside our solar system.
Using a variety of instruments, Webb returned multiple views of the exoplanet HIP 65426 b, a gas giant six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter and located about 385 light-years from Earth.
The results are part of an ongoing study, and they haven’t been reviewed or published in a scientific journal yet, but NASA has shared the initial results in Blog post Thursday morning.
“This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy in general,” Sasha Hinckley, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Exeter, said in a statement. They are the leading scientists in an international collaboration studying exoplanets.
HIP 65426 b was first discovered in 2017 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, in Chile, which looked at an exoplanet at short infrared wavelengths; Earth’s atmosphere blocks longer wavelengths of infrared light from ground-based telescopes. Because it’s space-based, Webb is able to access more of the infrared spectrum and see more detail in more distant planets.
Webb’s images aren’t the first direct images of exoplanets, as the Hubble Space Telescope has been able to capture images of other alien worlds, but that’s no easy feat – the extreme brightness of a star close to a planet can mask the light coming from that exoplanet. 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 orbits the Sun, which helped scientists pick out the planet in Webb’s photos. Webb’s instruments are also equipped with coronagraphs, devices that obscure the disk of the star’s distance to reduce glare and make finding and focusing on an exoplanet a little easier.
“It was really impressive how well the coronary Webb books were able to suppress the light of the host star,” Dr. Hinckley said.
The images, captured with multiple filters and a webcam near-infrared (Nircam) and mid-infrared (Miri) instrument, are just the first of what scientists hope will be a long line of images and discoveries of exoplanets made possible by the new space telescope. . The images come on the heels of a new analysis of one of Webb’s first observations, a spectrum of light from the exoplanet Wasp 39b, which has revealed the presence of carbon dioxide in the alien world’s atmosphere for the first time.
“I think what’s most exciting is that we’re just getting started,” Erin Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who analyzed new Web images of HIP 65426 b, said in a statement. “There are more images of upcoming exoplanets that will shape our general understanding of physics, chemistry and morphology. We may also discover previously unknown planets.”
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