For the first time, astronomers have used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to take a direct image of an exoplanet. The exoplanet is a gas giant, meaning it has no rocky surface and could not be habitable. The image, as seen through four different light filters, shows how Webb’s powerful infrared gaze can easily capture worlds beyond our solar system, pointing the way to future observations that will reveal more information than ever before about exoplanets.
The exoplanet in Webb’s image, called HIP 65426 b, is about 6 to 8 times the mass of Jupiter. It is young as planets go — about 15 to 20 million years old, compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.
Astronomers discovered the planet in 2017 using the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and took images of it using short infrared wavelengths of light. The Webb image, taken in mid-infrared light, reveals new details that ground-based telescopes would not be able to detect because of the intrinsic infrared glow of Earth’s atmosphere.
Researchers have been analysing the data from these observations and are preparing a paper they will submit to journals for peer review. But Webb’s first capture of an exoplanet already hints at future possibilities for studying distant worlds.
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.