For the 1st time, NASA’s JWST captured a direct image of an exoplanet

This is a transformative moment, not only for Webb but also for astronomy generally.

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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is an international mission led by NASA in collaboration with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). NASA‘s Webb takes its direct image of the distant world for the first time. 

It has captured an exoplanet called HIP 65426 b, a gas giant with no rocky surface. Plus, it could not be habitable. The exoplanet is about six to 12 times the mass of Jupiter. As reported, it is young as planets go — about 15 to 20 million years old, compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.

This is a transformative moment for Webb as well as astronomy.

The exoplanet was originally discovered in 2017 using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The instrument, at that time, took images of it using short infrared wavelengths of light. Webb’s view, at longer infrared wavelengths, reveals new details that ground-based telescopes could not detect because of the intrinsic infrared glow of Earth’s atmosphere.

Since HIP 65426 b is about 100 times farther from its host star than Earth is from the Sun, it is sufficiently distant from the star that Webb can easily separate the planet from the star in the image.

Because stars are so much brighter than planets, it is difficult to take direct photographs of exoplanets. In the mid-infrared and near-infrared spectrums, the planet HIP 65426 b is a few thousand times fainter than its host star.

In each filtered image, the planet appears as a slightly differently shaped blob of light. That is because of the particulars of Webb’s optical system and how it translates light through the different optics.

Aarynn Carter, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said, “Obtaining this image felt like digging for space treasure. At first, all I could see was light from the star, but with careful image processing, I could remove that light and uncover the planet.”

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