NASA’s James Webb telescope snaps its first picture of an exoplanet

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured its first direct images of a planet beyond our solar system.

The planet, called HIP 65426 b, is a gas giant with no rocky surface, which means it likely cannot support alien life, according to astronomers who described the images in a NASA blog post published Thursday. The scientists are preparing a paper about the observations, but the findings have yet to be peer-reviewed.

The observations are notable, however, because they hint at how the Webb telescope could be used to search for potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe.

“This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally,” Sasha Hinkley, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. Hinkley led the observations of HIP 65426 b with an international team.

The exoplanet is located about 355 light-years away from Earth and was first discovered in 2017, according to NASA. The gas giant is up to 12 times the mass of Jupiter and its orbit is around 100 times farther from its host star than Earth is from the sun.

NASA said the Webb telescope will be able to glean new details about HIP 65426 b, including a more precise measurement of its mass and age. Astronomers estimate that the exoplanet is about 15 million to 20 million years old, which means it’s a relatively young world compared to Earth, which is 4.5 billion years old.

The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped direct images of exoplanets before, but it remains tricky to accomplish from space because stars typically outshine planets. In the case of HIP 65426 b, the exoplanet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star in near-infrared light, the astronomers said.

“Obtaining this image felt like digging for space treasure,” Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the analysis of the images, said 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.”

The resulting image shows HIP 65426 b through four different light filters captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument.

The telescope’s infrared “eyes” can see through dust and gas, making them able to pick up objects and features beyond the range of human sight. Both the Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument are also outfitted with so-called coronagraphs that help block out starlight.

The $10 billion Webb telescope launched into space on Dec. 25, 2021. The first batch of images from the observatory was released in July, and early science operations have already yielded tantalizing discoveries.

“I think what’s most exciting is that we’ve only just begun,” Carter said in the statement. “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.”

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