The JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE Has Captured Its First Direct Image of an Exoplanet

The James Webb Telescope has captured its first-ever direct image of a planet outside our solar system.

Since it sent its first-ever image back to Earth in March of this year the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has continued to help astronomers and scientists deliver new insights into outer space. Scientists have already used JWST to capture new, ethereal images of Jupiter, as well as detect the existence of carbon dioxide in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Now, NASA reports the $9 billion space telescope has captured its first-ever direct image of a planet outside our solar system. Although it is a bit fuzzy.

Image: NASA/ESA/CSA, A Carter (UCSC), the ERS 1386 team, and A. Pagan (STScI)

In the image immediately above we see four views of JWST’s starring exoplanet, which scientists have dubbed HIP 65426 b. Each of the views is constructed from different wavelengths of infrared light; with the purple view showing the planet at the 3.00-micrometer wavelength; the blue, at the 4.44-micrometer wavelength; the yellow, at the 11.4-micrometer wavelength; and the red, at the 15.5-micrometer wavelength.

In the images the white star represents the location of the exoplanet’s host star. NASA notes the black bars appearing across the planet in the purple and blue images (both taken with JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam) are artifacts of the telescope’s optics, not celestial objects.

Although it’s only a speck in the images, HIP 65426 b is approximately six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter. NASA also says it’s “young as planets go,” as it’s estimated to be 15 to 20 million years old; quite a spry age compared to Earth’s 4.5-billion-years of existence.

Capturing direct images of exoplanets is difficult for space telescopes because stars are, of course, far brighter than the planets that orbit around them. In this instance, HIP 65426 b is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in the near-infrared. And several thousand times fainter in the mid-infrared. The planet is still visible, however, thanks in large part to coronagraphs, or sets of masks within each one of JWST’s infrared cameras that block out the parent star’s light.

“This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally,” Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who led a large, international collaboration to collect these images, said in NASA’s press release. “It was really impressive how well the Webb coronagraphs worked to suppress the light of the host star,” Hinkley added.

While this isn’t the first direct image of a planet outside our solar system, NASA says HIP 65426 b “points the way forward for Webb’s exoplanet exploration.” Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the analysis of the images, adds in the space agency’s press release that “There are many more images of exoplanets to come that will shape our overall understanding of their physics, chemistry, and formation.”

Feature image: NASA/ESA/CSA, A Carter (UCSC), the ERS 1386 team, and A. Pagan (STScI)

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