from NASA James Webb Space Telescope 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 probably cannot support extraterrestrial life, according to astronomers who described the images in a NASA blog post released Thursday. Scientists are preparing a paper on the sightings, but the results have not yet been peer reviewed.
The observations are notable, however, as they suggest how the Webb Telescope could be used to search for potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe.
“This is a transformative moment, not just for Webb but for astronomy in general,” said Sasha Hinkley, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Exeter in the UK. said in a press release. Hinkley conducted the observations of HIP 65426b with an international team.
The exoplanet is located about 355 light years from Earth and was first discovered in 2017, according to NASA. The gas giant has up to 12 times the mass of Jupiter and its orbit is about 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 the exoplanet to be around 15-20 million years old, meaning it’s a relatively young world compared to Earth, which is 4.5 billion years old.
The Hubble Space Telescope has taken direct images of exoplanets before, but it’s still hard to do from space because stars usually eclipse planets. In the case of HIP 65426 b, the exoplanet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its near-infrared host star, the astronomers said.
“Getting this image was 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 starlight, but with careful image processing I was able to remove that light and discover 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 the telescope’s infrared “eyes” can see through dust and gas, making them capable of picking up objects and features beyond the range of human sight. The near-infrared camera and mid-infrared instrument are also equipped with so-called coronagraphs that help block out starlight.
The $10 billion Webb Telescope was launched into space on December 25, 2021. first batch of images from the observatory was published in July, and the first scientific operations have already yielded some 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.”